Jun 23, 2012

Birth of John the Forerunner and religious liberty

Leonardo da Vinci: Jesus and John

Is 49: 1-6
Acts 13:  22-26
Lk 1: 57-66,80

Well, a very Merry “little Christmas” to everyone!  This Sunday we mark the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Note the date – the 24th of the month – and in just six months we will be in the darkness of winter and proclaiming, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Tradition states that by the time Mary met Elizabeth, Elizabeth was already farther along in her pregnancy.  As Luke tells us, “Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.” (Lk 1: 56).  By custom, Mary had gone to assist her cousin in her pregnancy and the delivery of her child.  Thus, we believe that John was about six months older than Jesus.  And so, June 24, six months before Christmas Eve, is the birthday of John the Baptist.  Now, that may be more liturgical trivia than you were looking for but I sometimes find such things interesting.

Even more compelling, though, is certainly the position of this last and greatest of all Old Testament prophets.  All the hopes and dreams of parents for their children are sometimes disappointed or often increased as they discover their child to have certain talents or abilities they never imagined. Hopes and dreams are ideals that keep us alive.

For Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, those hopes and dreams must have been particularly unique.  In the Gospel of Luke 1: 5-25 we read of the announcement of John’s birth.  A very different venue than Mary in Nazareth.  But in the end, both converge in the great truth we hear in the first reading for today’s Solemnity: “. . .For now the Lord has spoken who formed me as his servant from the womb . . .” (Is 49). In other words in the case of both John and Jesus, God intervened directly in a way that he had never before or since. 

The strange events surrounding the birth of John in today’s Gospel (Lk 11: 57-66,80) reinforce the fact of God’s intervention and a call to allow our eyes and hearts to see through John to the one he would point to.  As his time approached, John proclaimed, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3: 30).  This in a sense summarizes our lifestyle as disciples of Jesus.  In all things of our life, he must increase and we decrease.

So often these days we take the separation of church and state in this country to mean that I live a schizophrenic life; a kind of split personality that I am one way in my Church and another in the public marketplace. 

Yet, the life of us Catholics rooted so deeply in tradition, scripture and the lived teachings of our faith, calls us to let the voice of Christ be heard beyond the walls of our Churches.   If we are serious about our faith, it forms us in matters of conscience and morals. This formation influences the way we think, what and who we choose as friends, spouse, leadership and by what guide we will live.

Not in a way that is arrogant or self-righteous but in a way that allows us to be taken seriously and in particular allows us to freely exercise our religious beliefs without coercion by the government which may, as it did John the Baptist himself, challenge our fundamental beliefs of conscience and morality.  

John the Baptist died because his voice was too unbearable for the king to hear. His consistency and determination did not waver when he was threatened.   Our Catholic Bishops of the U.S. have recently declared a “Fortnight for Freedom” in which all Catholics across this Country are asked to engage in a “great hymn of prayer for our country” and “a national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.”

During these days of June 21 – July 4 we have outstanding examples of martyrs who gave their lives in face of a hostile government:  Sts. John Fisher, Thomas More (6/21), John the Baptist (6/24), Peter and Paul (6/29). It’s a powerful week for those who cherish freedom and conscience. 

America is a bastion of religious liberty for the entire world to emulate. Though we have a multitude of religious expressions in this country we can live together harmoniously.  We can, as the earliest of Christians did, live as faithful citizens while at the same time enjoy all that our religious expression offers to us.  Society as a whole is far better off with this freedom intact. There is a fundamental reason that religious liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly is the first of our Amendments – because it is the most important for the health of human society.

But as John the Baptist shows us, as Sts. John Fisher, Thomas More, Peter and Paul witnessed, when our secular government commands us to do what God tells us not to do, the rest of our American freedoms are also at risk. Should we refuse to obey an unjust law? It becomes a John the Baptist question in a way – who will increase?  The gradual infringement of the government on religious rights or the Gospel by which we have been allowed to live and worship these more than two centuries of American liberty?

The recent Health and Human Services mandate that all employers, including Catholic agencies, provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, is a national attack on religious liberty that has no precedent. We have never before been compelled to pay for such things that fly against our teaching on the dignity of the human person so why now? Other measures on the state and federal level have forced Catholic Charities in some major cities of this Country to abandon their adoption service to deserving married couples.  That is a great tragedy which further silences the voice of a faith based organization.

Recently an enlightening opinion on this issue was offered by Sr. Carol Keehan, President of the Catholic Health Care Association. She states:

“We continue to believe that it is imperative for the Administration to abandon the narrow definition of “religious employer” and instead use an expanded definition to exempt from the contraceptive mandate not only churches, but also Catholic hospitals, health care organization and other ministries of the Church . . . the government should find a way to provide and pay for these services directly without requiring any direct or indirect involvement of “religious employers,” . . .”

The debate continues but time is short.  Like John the Baptist may we become a voice in the wilderness that does not tire of our obligation to go beyond the walls of our worship places.