byMost Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito, Bishop of Palm Beach
The week of June 20 brings with it many significant occasions. Sunday, June 20, is Father’s Day and we wish all fathers a day filled with God’s blessings for their being concrete signs of God’s love among us. It is also the day when we return to church in a manner that no longer has many of the restrictions imposed upon us due to the coronavirus pandemic. June 20 is also the first day of summer which is for us, in Florida, symbolic of the freedom the season can bring.
On Thursday, June 24, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. This celebration is significant in the Church’s liturgical year. It is no coincidence that it falls near the summer solstice, the first day of summer which is the longest day of the year in terms of daylight hours, and six months before Christmas, near the winter solstice, when the shortest day of the year occurs. St. John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ who prepared the people of his time for the coming of the Messiah. With his birth, a season of preparation commenced. The Birth of the Messiah heralded the dawn of a new era in salvation. Christ, the Light, came into the world. St. John the Baptist’s role is well summed up in the very beginning of the Gospel of St. John: “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (Jn 1:6-9). The cycle of the Church’s liturgical year also repeats itself with the cycle of seasons under God’s loving hand. This movement offers us the opportunity to celebrate our faith and to obtain new insights into it.
How appropriate is the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist near the summer solstice since after that, the daylight hours will begin to decrease. It was St. John the Baptist who said of his relationship to Christ, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). It is as if the Baptist calls us to the celebration of the Birth of Christ which occurs when the daylight hours begin to increase. The cycle of the seasons and that of the liturgical year always give us much to reflect upon.
St. John the Baptist was a man of deep conviction. He was highly respected as a religious prophet during his day. He lived an austere and solitary life of penance in the desert and proclaimed a baptism of repentance which led to conversion of heart. John believed that the Messiah would come into the world as a reformer who would bring a harsh judgment to sinners. John truly was a fearsome preacher with a “fire and brimstone” message. He was holy, wise, sincere, and convinced. Many thought that he himself was the Messiah.
However, when Christ whom St. John the Baptist foretold did come, He did not appear as the harsh reformer John had predicted. Jesus proclaimed the same message of conversion but one that had to do with compassion, understanding, and forgiveness in imitation of His Father’s love. John began to wonder if he was right about Christ being the Messiah. After he was imprisoned for condemning King Herod’s adulterous relationship, he sent his messengers to Christ to express his disappointment. He questioned Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” (Mt 11:3). Jesus sent back understanding words, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense in me” (Mt 11:4-6). At this point, St. John the Baptist showed his greatest strength. He had to change his heart about the Messiah. The Lord was not a zealot but a compassionate Messiah. John did decrease so that Christ might increase. He went to his death, beheaded as a martyr. This example of change of heart is the best witness to his message. John practiced what he preached. As Pope Francis reflected last year on the celebration of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, “Let us learn from the one who was the forerunner of Jesus the ability to bear witness to the Gospel with courage, beyond our own differences, while preserving the harmony and friendship that forms the basis of any credible proclamation of the faith.”
This week we also celebrate another great saint of the Church whose life was one of conviction. Thursday, June 22, is the feast day of St. Thomas More who lived some fifteen centuries after John the Baptist. This is also the day we enter into Religious Freedom Week, called by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. There is a close connection between the death of St. John the Baptist and St. Thomas More. St. Thomas More, a great lawyer who became the Chancellor of England, went to his death as a martyr because he refused to condone the adulterous relationship of King Henry VIII. Because of his deep conviction, he too was beheaded, like St. John the Baptist. His strength of character and total devotion to Christ would not permit him to dilute his faith in the Gospel message. He truly saw his life as one that had to decrease in order that Christ might increase. Despite the resistance of his own family, he went to his death as “the king’s good servant – but God’s first.” He followed the message of Christ in forgiving his own executioner to whom it is reported that he said, “Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.”
Many summer days lie before us. However, even in southern Florida, the days will imperceptibly begin to grow shorter in daylight. Like our own passing days in this world, summer will slowly fade without us noticing until we are at its end. What matters in our life is Christ. He is the Light and meaning of all things. He alone brings joy and casts out all shadows. We have to decrease so that He might increase. As our days pass, we have to let go so Christ can take hold. Conviction about our faith in Christ, the Light, like that of Saints John the Baptist and Thomas More, is the only thing that matters.
The summer solstice will return again next year. When it does, we will be another year older and decreasing in our days in this life. That will not matter. What will matter is whether we are more convinced about the message of Christ and whether that message has increased in our lives. May the Baptist, the lawyer, and the solstice be reminders of what really matters as we begin the summer season.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 18, 2021