This past week we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, who is sometimes referred to as the Forerunner. John was one of the greatest and also the last of the prophets who came before Jesus. His entire life was oriented toward preparing others for the Messiah. Everything he did and every word which came from his mouth was for the purpose of showing others the way to Jesus. And once Jesus came John stepped aside so that Jesus would be the one to whom others looked. Therefore, to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist is to recall who he was and the importance of his role: he had the boldness required of a prophet who was tasked with being the bearer of a world-changing message, yet he was filled with the humility of knowing that he was not the source of message, but was simply the messenger. The feast of his birth reminds us that like St. John the Forerunner, we are also called to point others to Jesus through the gifts given to us at baptism.
A forerunner is described in the dictionary as “a person who goes or is sent in advance to announce the coming of someone or something that follows.” St. John was born into such a role. At the time of his conception his father was told by the angel Gabriel, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17) John was sent ahead of Jesus, therefore, to help people to be cleansed of sin so their hearts would be ready to accept the Lord. When Jesus came to him at the Jordan River asking for baptism, John recognized Him as the Messiah and Son of God. Humbled by Jesus’ request, saying it was Jesus who should be baptizing him, John obeyed and baptized Jesus. (Matthew 3:13-17) John was always obedient to the Word of God, yet as soon as he acquiesced, he made it clear that he must decrease while Jesus increased. (Paraphrase of John 3:30) In other words, he knew his role was fulfilled and that the time of the Messiah had come.
St. John was imbued with the message of the prophets who came before him. While we may see him as a gaunt, undernourished figure dressed in tattered animal skins, unkempt, and a bit wild-eyed, he was not an unbalanced or arrogant man, more certain of himself than of God. Rather, he was clear that the message he shared was God’s and so he could be bold with the truth. John was fully alive, so filled with the message and Spirit of God that he was afire with burning zeal to share that love with the children of Israel, knowing he would be misunderstood by taking a hard stand against the religious and political authorities of the day in preaching the truth. He stood up to King Herod when Herod was living with someone not his wife, and paid with his life for being willing to continue to preach truth in the face of derision and opposition.
This week we also celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul. These two men are the ones who truly gave the Christian church its rich spiritual foundation, spreading the Good News as they had been taught by Jesus Himself. Both were witnesses to Jesus, Peter ministering to those in Jerusalem and then in Rome, and Paul as a missionary spreading the faith in Asia Minor particularly to the Gentiles. These two men were also forerunners. They came after Christ, of course, but they prepared others for the reception of the Holy Spirit into their lives. In their preaching and in conferring the sacraments, they were pointing men and women to Jesus. They helped people to have an understanding and acceptance of Jesus as the Son of God so that they might have salvation. In doing so, they were forerunners of the Good News, announcing the message so that it would take up residence not only within their followers, but that it would be handed down to all of us who were to come afterward, so we too would know God’s love and mercy. Then, like John, they stepped out of the way.
Saints Peter and Paul were willing to do the same thing as John the Forerunner. They also stood against the Jewish leadership, the Romans, and all those who were antagonistic toward the followers of Jesus. They were willing to suffer much for the Good News, (that is, for Jesus) because they believed in the truth of the message and that Jesus is the Son of God. They were well aware that anyone who taught or embraced the truth of Jesus might be martyred. And yet they continued to heal the sick in Jesus’ name, to offer baptism, and to bring the freedom that comes with the truth. They understood what Jesus meant when He said: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) In other words, the truth had set them free from fear of their enemies and even from fear of death. They had been set free by Jesus’ love and forgiveness, and also in knowing that through His death and resurrection Jesus had fulfilled the promise of the Father. Their hearts were bursting with love, mercy, and compassion such that they could not contain it. Like John, they were afire with the zeal and love of the Lord. And they, too, were humble, letting the message be more important than they were.
We are also called to be forerunners. Peter, Paul, and John the Baptist have gone before us, but their teaching and example remain. Thankfully there are still men and women today who have chosen to continue the work of handing down the message through ordained ministry or consecrated life, dedicating their lives to service of the Lord in a specific way. But it is not just a ‘chosen few’ who are called to do this. Through baptism all of us are called to share the Good News through service and love. If we are Christian, we need to realize we are all forerunners of a sort, bringing the message of Jesus into the lives of all we meet simply by living what we profess to believe.
Being a forerunner means that first we must try to follow Jesus the best we can. John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul were not perfect, and no forerunner, (no person), is. A forerunner has to learn to let Christ do the leading, so that like John we can let Jesus increase while we decrease. In other words, we bring Jesus to people through word and deed, and then let God do the rest. We do not have to have any special talent, really, except to try to do even the smallest of things with love. A forerunner needs to be able to ask and receive forgiveness and then to give it to others in turn; to have the courage to stand up for goodness and truth by how they live; to refuse to give in to evil by instead living with love, compassion, and mercy, and to recognize that in their weakness is God’s strength. If this sounds daunting, it was no less so for Saints John the Forerunner, Peter, or Paul. Like them, we are never alone. We rely upon the Holy Spirit to give us what we need to be people of love and truth.
The world needs brave forerunners now more than ever. While a few, but not all, are called to be leaders in an obvious way, we can also be leaders in a quiet, humble way while still setting an example for others. Simply put, to be a forerunner is to live as a Christian. All we have to do is have a heart opened to God, a heart which is set afire with His love. If we reflect upon even one of the mysteries of His coming among us or of His death and resurrection; if we spend even a little time recognizing the love He has offered us throughout our lives, we can be set ablaze with gratitude and the desire to share this gift with others. Then, filled with mercy and compassion, we can share His love which is overwhelming in its depth and constancy. Let us therefore, be forerunners in the spirit of Saints John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul so that the Gospel continues to be a beacon of light and hope in the midst of a changing and challenging world.
May we accept with confidence the Good News given to us by the forerunners who brought it to us! May we have the courage to live the message of Jesus even when it is unpopular in our society! May we trust in the message of Jesus and in His love, mercy, and redemption! May we rely upon God always, so that in our weakness we may have His strength! May we have the wisdom to know when to decrease so that the Lord can increase! And may those around us know Jesus because of our love! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The first image is a painting of St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci.
Second is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. John The Forerunner Also The Baptist. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-john-the-forerunner-also-the-baptist-william-hart-mcnichols.html
Third is a painting called St. Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius by Francesco Trevisani, (1709).
Fourth is another icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. Paul the Apostle. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/143-st-paul-the-apostle
Last is a photo of Pope Francis and Father Adolfo Nicholás, Father General of the Society of Jesus, (Jesuits). Both men follow in the footsteps of a forerunner, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and both of these men are forerunners in their own right.
Heart Speaks to Heart