Friday, June 22, 2007

The Birthday of John the Baptist, Jesus' Cousin

I once visited the hometown of Jesus' cousin.

What a neat place! Lush with fresh green trees, abundant flowers, singing birds and of course steep hills which lead to breath-taking views over the valley below which leads to the Jordan and the Dead Sea. This is now a town of upper middle class and and well to do Jewish people. It is a wonderfully bucolic town with a rather small population and a lot of political clout. It is beautiful and makes you want to say, "I could live here." It is however, my opinion, that this is a case where you have to be careful what you ask for. I have vacationed in towns like this before. They are great to visit and great to leave. But, hey, there is no danger that I will ever live here, so I enjoyed myself.

There are the "obligatory" churches that "mark the spot" of Mary's Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth as well as the spot where John was born. The churches celebrate the saying, "We know that it happened somewhere, so it might as well be here." Well said. This is a jewel of a spot. This is a case of the land speaking to people. (The Fifth Gospel) This may not be "The Spot", but the tradition and the Land say that it is. It responds to some of the description that is in the Bible and it is close to Jerusalem. Zachariah was the priest in charge of the Holy of Holies in those times and because it was his turn and his term, he had to go to Jerusalem just about every day. It wasn't far. Maybe about 4 to 5 miles over hill and dale. About one and one-half hours' walk. One day, he was cornered by an angel in the Temple while he was on duty, as you recall, and struck dumb. But Elizabeth did conceive despite her old age and Mary took off from Nazareth and came to the village of En Kerem just outside of Jerusalem to help her cousin get through the first throes of her pregnancy.

We once heard our pastor, Father Romy say that it was a good thing that Zachariah was struck dumb after getting the news of Elizabeth's pregnancy. Father Romy, no stranger to small village life, said that being dumb saved Zachariah the trouble of having to explain his way out of every bit of gossip that must have besieged En Kerem once the event became publicly visible. It was the work of God, but there is never any protection from town gossip. So Mary came and helped while her uncle continued his Temple service.

The revelation of the Angel of God clearly told the family that the son who was to be born would be a "Son of God", a prophet who would carry the message of God in the example of Samson and Samuel, Nazarites who would not drink alcohol nor cut their hair. (Numbers, 6; 2 - 21 rules of Nazarites. Judges 13, 4 - 7 revelation of angel to Samson's mother) The call of the Nazarite was strict. It requir3ed total consecration to God. It separated the called one from the "world" and placed him in the service of God for the good of God's community. The call of God required total dedication to Him for life.

John's life began just a few months before Jesus'. Just as Mary and Joseph had to escape to Egypt, Zachariah and Elizabeth had to try to protect their baby. The non-biblical stories that are repeated verbally and written in some of the non-biblical books say that Zachariah was killed while trying to escape to protect John from being killed by the soldiers after the edict of Herod to kill all babies under two years old. Elizabeth managed to escape with the help of an angel. It is said that she was able to make it to Galilee and lived east of the Jordan, in the region of the Decapolis. From there John was able to begin his Mission, and eventually introduce his cousin Jesus to the world from the waters of the Jordan.

This was the age of accountability. This was the age of, "You're not married. You've had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband." (Jesus to the woman at the well) "You are not pleasing to God because you are sexually involved with other women. Your brother's wife" (John to Herod) "Didn't you know that your father and I were worried?" (Mary to Jesus) "Didn't you know that I had to be at my Father's work?" (Jesus back to Mary) "The one of you who is without sin should be the first to cast the stone." (Jesus to the Pharisees) "Peter, Peter! Tonight by the time the cock crows you will have renounced me three times." (Jesus to Peter) "Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not also
blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, 'We see,' so your sin remains." (Jesus to the Pharisees, John, chapter 9, verses 40 and 41) "He says that He is going to Jerusalem. We go with Him to die with Him." (Thomas to the disciples)

Through our Sacred Scripture, we know that John grew up and lived to get his head cut off and put on a platter to please the woman in Herod's life. We all know what happened to Jesus. It has never been easy to confront the world with the truth. If there is something that we can learn about life as we contemplate the parallels between the lives of John and Jesus I think that it is, "The truth will set you free, but you have to be willing to be free in heaven because the "world" is not the home of the truth."

It is not easy to learn this lesson. A lot of us grow old because God keeps wondering how long it is going to take us to learn it and live it. The Bible says that those who have successfully learned it get the pleasure of walking with God early in their lives. Check out these words of the book of Wisdom, Chapter 3:

1 But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them.
2 They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction
3 and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.
4 For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality;
5 Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.
6 As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
7 In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble;
8 They shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the LORD shall be their King forever.
9 Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love: Because grace
and mercy are with his holy ones, and his care is with the elect.

John and his cousin Jesus were given to us so that we could aspire to the same gift that they received. Eternal Life3 in the glory of heaven.
May God bless us so that we will not have to cry at one another's funeral.
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