Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Patronal Feast Day of the Order of Malta
St. Philip and James Church
June 25, 2019
A voice is a precious thing. It is our primary way of communicating. We employ our voice to express our ideas and emotions, whether in ordinary conversation or in more public forms of speech. We shout when we are angry or excited and whisper when confiding a secret. We lift our voices in song when we give praise to God. When our voice fails us, even temporarily, we are troubled.
When an angel told Zechariah that his aged wife Elizabeth was with child, he posed questions that betrayed his incredulity. It was then that Zechariah’s voice failed him. Because of his lack of faith, his powers of speech were temporarily taken away. In today’s Gospel, Zechariah’s voice is restored when he signals that his newborn son is to be named “John” – in accord with the set plan and purpose of God.
When Zechariah’s tongue was loosed, he uttered a beautiful canticle that is sung each day in Lauds, the Morning Prayer of the Church, a canticle that describes the mission of the child whose birthday we celebrate: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will come upon us, … to guide our feed into the way of peace!” Thus Zechariah’s voice was raised in song and in prophecy, as he sang of the mission God had entrusted to his newborn son, John.
The Birth of the Voice
How fitting that Zechariah’s voice should return with the birthing of John the Baptist. St. Augustine, writing in the 5th century, puts it this way: “Zechariah is silent and loses his voice until John, the precursor of the Lord, is born and restores his voice….” He adds, “The tongue is loosened because a voice is born.”
And what a voice it was. It was a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord!” It was the voice calling people to repentance in the waters of the Jordan. It was the voice that called out, “Behold the Lamb of God!” and a voice that whispered, “He must increase, I must decrease!” It was a voice that could not be silenced even by the executioners axe, for to this day the voice that was born to Elizabeth and Zechariah resounds.
John is the last of the prophets but more than a prophet for of the prophets he alone saw the One who had been prophesied. John was the last of the prophets but also the herald of a new era of grace with the advent of Jesus Christ.
Our celebration of the Birth of St. John the Baptist is surely a graced moment for us, not unlike Zechariah, to find our voice, not merely our natural voice but indeed our supernatural voice, by which we bear witness to the living Word of God, to the Word made flesh, to the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. This is a day to find anew our voice, the voice of faith, hope, and love to be raised in praise and adoration of the God who saves us. This is a day to find afresh our voice, a voice of faith and reason, to be employed in defending the faith, in addressing people’s concerns about the faith and about the Church, a voice to be engaged in the beautiful work of spreading the Gospel.
The find our voice, paradoxically enough, in moment of quiet, reflective prayer. When we are silent, prayer, reflective, repentant, the Word of God comes alive in us and cries out from deep within. We find our voice as our hearts are purified and like that of Zechariah are synchronized with God’s set plan and purpose. By contrast, when we go it alone and rely only upon our own wit and wisdom, then it is that our voice falters, then trails off at the first sign of opposition, in the face of the headwinds that are swirling about in both the Church & the world.
Like John the Baptist, the word which our voice speaks is not our own. Rather, like John we have been called to go ‘before the Lord to prepare his ways’ … ‘to give his people knowledge of salvation by the proclamation of mercy’. Like St. Paul we have been called to speak, not in terms of human wisdom, but rather of ‘Christ crucified, Christ the wisdom and power of God’ (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2).
Individual and Collective Voice
In these days when so many are leaving the Church because of scandal or indifference or larger cultural currents, it is critical that we, like Zechariah, find our voice and that we, like John the Baptist, proclaim the Word. We must first find our voice individually, surely by prayer, reading, and study, by sound preparation of mind and heart but also by a newfound openness to the Holy Spirit who fills us with a wisdom and courage beyond our natural abilities.
We must also find our collective voice as Knights and Dames of Malta, a united voice raised in the defense of faith, a united voice raised on behalf of the poor and defenseless, a united voice that bears witness to Jesus Christ and to his Church. Is this not what, in essence, we pray for in the daily prayer of the Order?
Through the intercession of St. John the Baptist, may our voices always be raised in witness of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever! Amen.