“No. He will be called John” (Lk 1:60).
With these simple words, three inter-related points arise. First, Elizabeth is beginning to shift the momentum of original sin. Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat of the fruit that God had told her and Adam not to eat of, yet she did. Adam did not support her nor step in during her dialogue but remained silent in the face of the pressure placed upon Eve. Both of them slipped into sin by not following the will of God.
At the time of the birth of Elizabeth’s son, there was cause for celebration, for Elizabeth was past child-bearing years. The day had come to have the boy circumcised and named, her relatives and neighbors had gathered around with great excitement and there appeared to be a unanimous decision to name the boy after his father. Elizabeth did not, like Eve, cave to the pressure and temptation surrounding her. Unlike Adam who lost his voice at the time he needed to speak up, Zechariah found his voice, and had Elizabeth’s back. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah knew what God wanted them to do and were faithful to follow through despite any cultural pressure and established norm to the contrary.
The second point is already alluded to in the first, and that is how Elizabeth and Zechariah were faithful to God amidst the familial and social pressure placed on them. Some may be removed by such familial pressure when naming a child, but for this time, Elizabeth despite the pressure held her ground and stood firm that the boy would be named John. Ignoring her, the people deferred to Zechariah, the boy’s father, thinking he would have more sense, but he, ignoring the paternal cultural pressure, supported Elizabeth. The point here is not so much the name, but the following of the will of God in the face of pressure to do the opposite.
This brings us to the third point and that is the maturation in moving from identity to integrity. Culture and traditions are not sacred, but God is. Elizabeth and Zechariah faced a lot of familial and social pressure to conform, yet they chose to be true to God, to be true to themselves, and they chose integrity over their identity.
The very simple account of Elizabeth and Zechariah naming their child John in opposition to the pressure offers for us a way to counteract the rising tide of polarization and conflicts that we face in our own country today. Identity provides safety, support, and security. It fuels one of our deepest pangs of hunger and that is to belong, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We can find our identity in family, friendships, our religious traditions, culture, political affiliations, common interests, clubs, activities, and hobbies. But our identity, which provides us with security and stability is good but can also be a trap.
We want to belong so much, the drive is so strong, that we may have made decisions, acted in ways, and supported others, that go against who we are just so that we can belong. We may have known what God wants from us, heard the whispers of his voice in our conscience, yet were pulled by the louder voices of our group. We are sometimes so ingrained by our identity that we are being strangled and suffocated by it.
In today’s Gospel account, Elizabeth and Zechariah were true to the will of God over and against those placing pressure on them. More often though, being a person of integrity does not go so well. Their own son, who would grow up to be John the Baptist, would lose his life by speaking truth to power.
John would also show his integrity when he said, “I must decrease and he must increase” (cf. John 3:30). John was talking about Jesus who embodies the moral courage that we all need today. Though more than just a model of a life well-lived, more than just a word on the page, Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is present to us now, to guide and lead us, to empower us with the same love that he embodies, such that when we invite him into our lives, we too can be transformed to live a life of truth, moral courage, and integrity.
Becoming less, like John the Baptist, and allowing Jesus to be more by working through us, will help us to act and speak up for those that are being belittled, demeaned, and/or dehumanized. We can then transcend the ranks of identity and rise to the heights of integrity, especially when it means standing up to those in our “group.” Protecting police officers, priests, and/or political leaders who have abused their power at the expense of others for the sake of protecting the identity of the institution or our place in it not only adds further abuse but weakens the institution. While at the same time, casting a net of guilt by association over all in any group is also unjust. We also may be shaming those who could be the very ones to help to bring about necessary and sustainable change.
Being people of integrity, calls us to speak for those who have been abused and not afforded basic human dignity. We are to protect those who might be at risk and/or those who have been or are being abused, oppressed, and/or prevented equal access. This provides a necessary step in providing support for those needing healing, allows for the planning and enacting of the necessary reforms to end the risk of further abuse and create more equitable access.
All of which will also strengthen the integrity of those within the construct of institutions that are put in place to empower the very people they serve. We are to hold each other accountable while at that same time be willing to work toward a reconciliation that will arise through mutual respect, openness to dialogue, collaboration, and reconciliation.
Photo: Infant John the Baptist with the Lamb – painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. St John the Baptist on the Solemnity of your nativity, pray for us.
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are true” (Mt 7:13-14).
Jesus meets us where we are in our present state of life. He accepts us as we are at this very moment. At the same time, Jesus does not want us to just settle and to merely get by, surviving day by day. Instead, he encourages and guides us to be fully actualized. He calls us to perfection, to holiness, to be saints! He sees in us, as he did in his disciples and apostles, the promise of our potential and who his Father calls us to be. We each have a unique gift or gifts to offer to the world, each and every one of us.
One way of interpreting entering the narrow gate is that we need to say no to those apparent goods that we find initially inviting but soon realize that they are empty promises, can burden us, weigh us down, and worse lead us to addiction and enslavement. To pass through the narrow gate, we need to say yes to that which will truly bring us happiness, fulfillment, and true freedom and this means we need to say no to supporting our false ego and turning the focus in upon ourselves. We need to instead be willing to expand and go out of ourselves and will the good of and accompany others.
Jesus will help us in seeking and discerning his will. Spending time in prayer can often reveal the sources of our worry, anxiety, or fear; pride, judgment, or prejudice; sinful actions, harmful habits, and/or addictions. We need not deny or run from them. Instead, acknowledge whatever arises with Jesus, and then allow him to provide healing and transformation. This will not be a one-time, done now for all activity, but a daily, disciplined commitment and practice of discernment and examination of our conscience.
We need to continually open our hearts to the Holy Spirit such that he will give us the courage to discern between apparent and authentic goods in our lives. In our time of prayer, we can imagine placing our hand in Jesus’ hand as if we were a small child and allow him to lead us to experience the love, mercy, and grace of our ever-present God and Father. What Jesus leads us to do, he will also give us the strength and resources to bring to completion, which ultimately will be a life of communion with God and one another in this life and into the next.
Photo credit: Our recent 8 and a half mile hike traversing many narrow paths, but together we made it there and back again!
For many of us, judging one another is almost as automatic as breathing. As we encounter someone, instant internal judgments arise. We judge looks, clothes, actions, inactions, homes, cars, and material items. We judge our family, spouses, friends, colleagues, classmates, leaders, enemies, celebrities, as well as those different from us and those on the peripheries. Much of what gets our attention when we take the time to think about it is what Jesus is addressing in today’s Gospel, negative judgments.
Jesus said to his disciples: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Mt 7:4-5).
There are positive judgments that bring about effective change for the good. In a court case, our hope is that the judge is learned in the law and guides the lawyers and jury in ways of sound judgment such that justice with mercy is served. For us to do likewise in our everyday interactions with one another, Jesus shares that we need to remove the wooden beam from our eye first before we are able to remove the splinter in another’s.
Jesus is leading us to experience transformation. He is inviting us to change our hearts such that they are no longer hardened by negative judgments of others based on our biases and prejudices, but softened, such that they are open to the mercy and love of Jesus. This does not mean that we accept any and all behaviors, actions, and inactions from ourselves and others. Jesus does not do this either. Jesus accepts ALL people as we are and where we are, with mercy. He is willing to enter our chaos, to embrace any and ALL of us who will receive the invitation of his healing embrace, and through his love Jesus accompanies and walks with us, leading us from our slavery of sin to that which is True, Good, and Beautiful.
We participate in the life of Jesus when we allow him to heal us from our own limitations of self-centered perceptions, from the denial and suppression of our anxieties and fears that lead to the developing of our biases and prejudices. Then we will begin to see others as God sees them, as human beings endowed with dignity because ALL people have been created in the image and likeness of God.
We participate in making our realm of influence a better place when we allow God to love and to bestow his mercy upon others through us. We participate in Jesus’ work of redemption when our judgments toward ourselves and others are not condemnations but convictions that help to empower, build, and lift up our brothers and sisters.
We participate in taking the log out of our own eye and assisting to remove the splinter in another’s eye when we are willing to admit our shortcomings, weaknesses, and failures, and then learn and grow from those experiences. We are then in a better position to be able to accompany others in their own chaos, to journey side by side, willing to help each other to be transformed into who God is calling us to be.
These steps will begin when we are willing to lay down our gavels of judgment, biases, and prejudices and instead, with open hearts on fire with the love and mercy of the Holy Spirit, offer our hands to one another with an invitation to walk hand in hand, arm in arm, so to be about building each other up.
Photo: Summer seminarian program with Fr. Daniel and my seminarian brothers, hiking in Glenville area of SC.
Luke records how Jesus had been teaching and healing a large crowd of five thousand men. As the day was drawing to a close, the Twelve approached him and said, “Dismiss the crowd so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms and find lodging and provisions; for we are in a deserted place here” (Lk 9:12). The disciples appear to show concern for the many gathered. Yet the response of Jesus may reveal otherwise.
When Jesus tells them to, “Give them some food yourselves” (Lk 9:13), the disciples are stymied, for all that they had, five loaves and two fish, would be just enough to feed themselves. The disciples first sought to send the people away because they could see nothing but the limited resources they had, they saw lack.
What follows is the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish such that everyone present had enough to eat. “They all ate and were satisfied. And when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets” (Lk 9:17). This miraculous account is recorded in all four Gospels. Time and again, throughout the Gospel narration, Jesus is provides a way where there appeared to be no way. His supernatural grace builds on nature.
We see this most wonderfully in the transfiguration of the simple gifts of bread and wine which represent our gift and offering. When we bring the little we have, Jesus divinizes our gifts and makes them holy. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the appearance of bread and wine remain, but the substance, the very core and reality, has been transformed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.
How many times have we given up not knowing that had we just persevered a bit more we would have accomplished what we sought out to do? How many times have we been overwhelmed before we even began a task so did not even begin? How many times have we not reached out to help because we wondered if we really could make much of a difference any way? How many times have we believed there was no way forward instead of trusting that there is a way?
If you are like me, and can answer in the affirmative to any and/or all of the above, we are in the same place as the disciples just before Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish and fed the five thousand. Jesus also, through the hands of the priest offers us bread from heaven.
Too often, we see lack, where Jesus sees a way. We are finite human beings living in a finite world, yet there is more than the natural, more than what the senses can detect, there is the supernatural. The Eucharist is not just a symbol but the true presence of Jesus, fully human and fully divine. When we eat his body and drink his blood we experience a deep and intimate connection with Jesus. He dwells ever deeper within us so as to transform us into the fullness of who we have been created to be.
With Jesus all things are possible. He will not only provide or guide but empower each and everyone of us by giving the gift of himself. With Jesus there is always a way, because he is the way, the truth, and the life.
Photo: Eucharistic procession at St. Helen’s in Vero Beach, FL, Saturday morning.
We are on retreat for the next few days, so I will be offline from phone and internet. Be assured of my prayers for you and your intentions.
Peace and all God’s good 🙏🏼
I have just begun the summer program as a seminarian. I hope to be able to continue to post reflections on the readings but it will not be daily as before. Stay tuned!