NATIVITY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST (B)
"We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence... We need silence to be able to touch souls." - Mother Teresa
Today is the day in the Church's calendar when we celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist. We are used to hearing about St. John during the Advent season, when we all come together in the liturgy to "prepare the way of the Lord." That was the mission of John's life, to prepare the people of Israel to receive the coming Messiah.
John the Baptist was an interesting character. His father was Zechariah, a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem. His mother, Elizabeth, was a cousin of Mary. Very little is known of him until he is about 30 years of age, when he appears in the Gospels proclaiming a message of repentance and announcing the coming of one greater than he. "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" We hear these words proclaimed every Sunday at Mass, before we receive the Eucharist. But they were first said by John the Baptist (Jn 1:29).
In the same Gospel account, when asked who he was, St. John called himself, "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" (Jn 1:23). Indeed, if you saw John today on the streets, the first word that came to your head would likely be "wild." In art he is often depicted as a rugged looking man, with long beard, uncombed hair, wearing a loin cloth or ragged clothes made of camel hair. In today's Gospel reading from Luke, describing John's birth, the passage concludes simply by saying he "grew and became strong in spirit; and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel" (Lk 1:80).
The word translated as "desert" in the New Testament is often also translated as "wilderness." We should not think of it only as a place where it rains very little (though it certainly was that), but as a place very much outside and away from all human settlement. John made his abode outside of the city, away from towns and villages, separated from human civilization, very much in isolation. Why would he do this?
Jesus himself spend some time in the desert. Before He was to undergo His Passion, he spent forty days fasting in the desert. We imitate this today during the forty days of Lent before Easter. Jesus went away in order to prepare Himself for the ordeal yet to come, so that He could more clearly and deeply hear the voice of God. John the Baptist lived him life in the same way, removed from the noise and distractions of human life, so that he could hear the voice of God all the more.
There is a story in the Old Testament of the prophet Elijah waiting in a cave to hear the voice of God. First there was a strong wind, but the voice of God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the voice of God was not in the earthquake. That was followed by fire, but the voice of God was not in the fire. After all of this, there was "still, small voice," and Elijah knew this to be the voice of God (1 Kings 19:11-13).
God speaks to us in the "still, small voice," but we tend to drown it out with all of our human business. It can be very difficult to hear Him over the cacophony of our day-to-day lives. And so the great prophets, including John the Baptist and Elijah, have always sought refuge in the wilderness, where in silence they could commune with God.
There still exists in the Church today the class of people known as hermits, who live their lives in complete isolation, devoted solely to prayer and listening to that "still, small voice." Of course not all of us are called to be hermits. Very few are! As human beings, we were made by God as social beings, intended to live in community and relationship with one another. But the most important relationship of all is our relationship with our Maker. If you never listened to anything your parents had to say to you, would you describe that as a good relationship? If you never spoke to your best friend, what kind of friend could you claim to be?
To have a good relationship with God means talking and listening to Him. We need to allow ourselves time in our lives to hear that "still, small voice." We, too, can retreat into the desert, into the wilderness. That many not mean taking a trip out to Arizona. It might mean taking a quiet walk in the Smoky Mountains. But it can also mean putting your cell phone on silent, turning off the television, and deciding not to check Facebook for a day. (Believe me, the world won't end if you don't update your status for 24 hours). You need to give yourself permission to remove yourself mentally from the noise of our society, so that you can hear the voice of the eternal God, ever-present behind all the sounds we create.
The Church sets aside one day each week, Sunday, as the sabbath. This day is to be dedicated to the Lord. It's the day we are obliged to attend Mass, yes. But if we are going to Mass and then getting about our regular business, we are missing the point. The entire day is holy. It is the time when we are given permission to say, "I'm not going to worry about my cares and stress of the rest of the week. I am going to relax, to quiet myself, and allow myself to hear the voice of God." This is your day for some quality time with Jesus.
This Sunday, as we celebrate the birth of the "voice crying in the wilderness," St. John the Baptist, try to create a little "wilderness" for yourself. Take a hike. Go for a silent walk. Or if you cannot do that, just turn off everything that makes noise, hums, rings or beeps, and spend some time listening to the silence. Spend some time listening to the Lord.