I became an uncle for the 7th time recently. My brother Raul and his wife became first-time parents two weeks ago. Little Claudia Mercedes arrived on Tuesday 12 June, at 20 inches, 7 lbs 6 oz, and a full head of jet black hair. First born children get a lot of attention understandably, and as well, first sons and first daughters, and twins, and heirs to royal thrones, and children of couples past the age most couples have children, and anyone adopted by Angelina Jolie. I’ve already seen a few dozen pictures of my niece on Facebook, probably more than my parents ever took of me in my first five years of life. And curiously that excitement never subsides, even after the second, third, and fourth child. All these kids have to do is sit there and yawn. Everyone else has to put a lot more effort into attracting other people’s attention. I drew masterful works of art with crayons on my grandmother’s walls. Unfortunately, none of those priceless works survived. Such a shame. How about you? How did you leave a mark on history?
Much of what we know of John the Baptist we find in the gospels, and the details of his origins come primarily from Luke, as well as other lesser known non-biblical sources. John grew up to become a prophet and a highly regarded figure in his day, the only son of Elizabeth and Zechariah of Hebron in the Judean hill country. His parents were past the age people typically have children, meaning they could have been in their 40s or 50s. And he is one of only three persons whose birthday we observe in the church calendar, besides Jesus and his mother Mary, most likely because of the significant role he played in salvation history. He was the precursor of the Anointed of God, the voice that cried, “in the desert prepare a way for the Lord!”
The birth of John was shrouded in the unexplainable, sending fear and wonder upon the family and neighbors of Elizabeth and Zechariah. And these were not simple coincidences like strange weather patterns, or terrible signs in the skies and the seas, or eerily accurate premonitions. Rather, his father Zechariah who was unable to speak for the last nine months, was now able all of a sudden. “His name is John,” he told the gathered relatives, not quite what anyone would have expected to hear when a man who had not spoken for months suddenly speaks. Of itself, that particular detail would have gone unnoticed had not Elizabeth’s cousin Mary come calling unexpectedly three months before, and the women exchanged stories of angelic visions, and they shared amazing news of yet another child to be born shrouded in mystery.
Not all remarkable people have strikingly remarkable beginnings. Most of us have unremarkably ordinary beginnings. We are born into the same blend of anxiety and hope, of dread and excitement, of turmoil and calm in which every human drama unfolds. But each of us is born endowed with incredible potential, and entrusted a wealth of amazing possibilities. And when we can get past the unremarkable and sometimes awkward details that are part of everyone’s experience of growing up – the first steps, the first words, the first day of kindergarten, middle school, driving permits, puberty, dating, graduation – we are more able to distinguish what makes for a truly remarkable human experience. It is less about what we have or what we come to acquire, and much more about what we possess deep within and how we enrich those whose lives we touch.
John’s parents had many of the same hopes and fears for their son as all other parents would have. They desired for him the best of life they could afford, the best nourishment, the best educational opportunities, the best home environment. They were justifiably more concerned they might not be around to see him come to maturity. Still they devoted themselves to raising a healthy, happy, well-adjusted, contributing member of society, faithful to the Law of Moses, a law-abiding, compassionate, and just man in the eyes of God and all people. Yet much of what a child becomes is ultimately beyond the control of mom and dad. We have to figure a lot out for ourselves. And in spite of who our parents are, what they accomplish, the wealth and influence they amass, their gifts of grace and nature, their shortcomings and faults, their faithfulness to God and their contribution to the betterment of their neighbor, or lack thereof, we cannot abdicate our role in the unfolding of our own lives, not just in our choice of career, or friends, or where we live, but more importantly, how we contribute to the advancement of the kingdom of God, how we accomplish the ultimate purpose for which we are created, and the legacy we leave behind for those who come after us.
On the flip-side, parents often have a hard time getting over their own adult children’s bad decisions and misadventures. At some point parents have got to cut the cord. Yes, you will continue to share your children’s joys and disappointments. That comes from sharing a common history. But you will also have to allow them to make their own mistakes, and acquire some wisdom and understanding when they are ready, and raise their children the way they choose, sometimes despite your best intentions and the example that you set. Life doesn’t always turn out the way we imagine it when we look into the eyes of a child. But we want to declare with confidence that we did our utmost to help them reach their fullest potential, and that we did not get in the way of God’s purpose for them.
The Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist falls around the time of the summer solstice, exactly six months to Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. From here on, the length of each day gradually decreases. It reminds us of something John himself said after Jesus came to him at the Jordan river to be baptized. Speaking to his own followers, John said, “You yourselves can testify that I said [that] I am not the Messiah, but that I was sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease.”In the gradually waning daylight, John points us to the bridegroom, Jesus Christ. And when his light is revealed, the length of each night will slowly decrease, exactly what happens following the winter solstice.
By purely human standards, John the Baptist would not be considered a great success. But on the same scale, neither would Jesus Christ. And regardless of their own perception of how well they did, they both achieved what God sent them to accomplish. What matters most is how we cooperate with God’s grace. Like John the Baptist, we serve the bridegroom and our lives must point to him. He alone is the measure of our success.