God Is Gracious

(Nativity of John the Baptist)

Before returning to “Ordinary Sundays” after Pentecost, we always celebrate the feasts of the Trinity and Corpus Christi. This year we have a third feast – the Birth of John the Baptist. It falls on June 24, almost exactly six months after Christmas. The timing is deliberate. Jesus’ birth comes when days are growing longer. Most appropriate because he is the Light dawning in our bleak world.* On the other hand, John’s birth is celebrated when days begin to gradually shorten. This too is appropriate because John himself said, “He (Jesus) must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30)

Today’s Gospel emphasizes how the Baptist received his name. Because his father had been struck dumb, well meaning – but bossy – in-laws got into the act. They said he should be named Zechariah after his dad. But his mom knew an angel had assigned a different name (Lk 1:12) so she stood her ground. Zechariah took a tablet and wrote, “Yahweh is gracious,” that is, John.

From before his birth John had a mission which was summed up in the very last verse of the Hebrew Bible: “He will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.” (Mal 4:5) Last Sunday we celebrated Father’s Day. It was bittersweet because, while we have so many beautiful dads, we also have an unfortunate increase of those G.K. Chesterton called “fugitive fathers.” And every dad, even the very best, knows he can do more to turn his heart toward his children.

And children need to turn their hearts to their fathers. I have talked with teenagers who came so close to committing suicide. They had everything ready – the razor or the pills – but then thought about their father and the shame it would bring. That alone is what often prevents a young person from falling into some destructive behavior like shoplifting, premarital sex or drugs. At the same time the desire to bring honor to ones parents motivates a young person to heroic deeds. It is no accident, after the commandments relating to love of God, comes “Honor your father and mother.”

Today we celebrate the birth of the great precursor of Jesus. Though his role in announcing the Messiah is unique, we will always need those who “in the spirit and power of Elijah, turn the hearts of fathers to their children – and children to their fathers.” (Lk 1:17) And who will show us the meaning of those beautiful words, “God is gracious.”


*This symbolism only works in the northern hemisphere. During my seven years in the southern hemisphere (where they are now entering winter), I noticed they adapted meanings to their own seasons and pastoral needs. In Spirit of the Liturgy Cardinal Ratzinger comments on this phenomenon and its significance for the universal church. He also presents the latest research on how the date of Christmas was fixed, namely, that it followed from determining March 25 as the date of the Annunciation. And of course today's date comes from the fact that John, according to Lk 1:36, is six months older than Jesus.

Spanish Version

From the Archives (Solemnity of Birth of John the Baptist):

Baptism of Repentance (2018)
The Herald of Freedom (Nativity of St. John the Baptist 2012)
Fearfully, Wonderfully Made (Nativity of St. John the Baptist 2007)
God Is Gracious (Nativity of St. John the Baptist 2001)

Other Homilies

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Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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