24 June 2018

Sometimes evil is so
great that crying out
is our only prayer

An icon of Saint John the Baptist in a small chapel in Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 24 June 2018: Trinity IV and the Birth of Saint John the Baptist:

9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Castletown Church, Co Limerick.

Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 7-13; Acts 13: 14b-26; Luke 1: 57-56, 80.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning is the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. It is a unique commemoration in the Church Calendar, so unique that it should not be transferred to a weekday celebration when it falls on a Sunday.

Only three people in the Bible have their birthdays celebrated in the Church Calendar: Christ on Christmas Day (25 December), his mother, the Virgin Mary (8 September) and Saint John the Baptist.

Incidentally, today is also a special day for me, for I was ordained priest 17 years ago on this feastday [24 June 2001], and was ordained deacon 18 years ago tomorrow [25 June 2000].

Later his afternoon, we have two special celebrations in this group of parishes that make this feast very special this year: as part of a programme of reaching out to the parishes in the diocese, the choir of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, is singing Choral Evensong in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, at 5 p.m.

Later this morning, in Holy Trinity Church, Samuel Jacob Teskey is being baptised in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale.

Baptism is not a private matter for a family, or simply making sure that we have got the baby’s name right. It is a public event in the life of the Church, it ought to take place within the liturgy and the worship of the Church.

It is not about giving a name to baby, not is about protecting a baby when the parents plan to take him or her on a long journey.

When Christ comes to the River Jordan to be baptised by Saint John the Baptist, it marks the very beginning of his public ministry and mission. It is also a Trinitarian moment, in which we come to understand God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So, Baptism is never just about me, about the child, about one Baptism. There is no place for a self-centred or individual-centred understanding of Baptism. Baptism marks our incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church, we become full members of the Church, and it also marks the beginning of our own ministry and mission, for each and every one of us as members of the Church.

Saint Matthew’s Gospel introduces Christ’s ministry by first telling the story of Saint John the Baptist. Saint Mark begins his Gospel with the appearance of Saint John the Baptist. And the first person we meet in Saint John’s Gospel is Saint the Baptist.

But Saint Luke alone tells the story of Saint Elizabeth’s pregnancy and the birth of Saint John the Baptist.

This birthday celebration is at pivotal moment in the calendar: half-way between one Christmas Eve and the next: yes, sorry to startle you, but Christmas Eve is just six months away from today.

But it is also a pivotal moment in the calendar, because it coincides with that time when the days start to get shorter and nights start to get longer.

In Ireland, in Greece, and in many other places across Europe, a bonfire was kindled as darkness fell on Saint John’s Eve. The bonfire was a protest at what the poet Dylan Thomas called ‘the dying of the light.’

The child’s mother, Elizabeth, even though she is, as some might say, a little on in years, knows her pregnancy is a blessing, and her neighbours and relatives rejoice with her when she gives birth (Luke 1: 58).

The child’s father, Zechariah, is, literally, dumb-struck, by the prospect of becoming the father of a son. When he recovers his speech – a sign of his obedience to God in all this chaos – his first words give us the long song of praise or canticle we know as Benedictus.

This is the part that is missing from this Gospel reading. But here Zechariah hails his son as the prophet of God the most high. And he is a prophet because he brings from the very beginning, at his birth the good news of the fulfilment of God’s promise.

Zechariah tells those who are gathered that God has responded to the cries of people, and in his mercy is going to ‘rescue’ then ‘from the hands of our enemies,’ so that they may live without fear’:

‘By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (Luke 1: 78-79).

But I sometimes wonder whether Zechariah and Elizabeth would have been so quick to rejoice, so quick to celebrate, if they had known what was going to happen to their son?

Could they had foreseen that a cruel capricious ruler, who would slaughter the first-born, would then lock up their son and – to meet the demands of his wayward daughter – would agree to behead him?

We all know in some way the sadness of people who wait longingly, through many years of marriage, for the birth of a child.

But we all know too that the greatest sadness and grief any parent can suffer is to be alive when their child dies, no matter how old the parents are by then, no matter how young or old the child is, an infant or an adult. And that grief will be seen at a funeral in Askeaton later today.

Would any of us who are parents have our children if we knew they were going to suffer cruelly? But my question is asked in vain. The answer, of course, is yes. And that answer is so because it is rooted in love.

While I was thinking of Zechariah and Elizabeth, how they longed for a child, how that child escaped Herod’s slaughter of children in his age group (see Matthew 2: 16-18), only to become the victim of the victim of cruelty that was whimsical and decided on the spur of the moment, I could not avoid thinking of the plight of children who have been forcibly separated from their parents in the United States, and who are now being held – despite what President Trump said in the past week – are still being held in cages.

I was invited to speak about this at a protest outside the US Embassy in Dublin on Thursday, immediately after arriving back from Greece.

There I asked if anyone asks how ordinary, decent people remained silent while children were being sent on trains to Auschwitz and Belsen in the 1930s and 1940s, they need only ask how ordinary, decent people remain silent today given what we now know is happening in America.

If children here in a school, creche or pre-school group were held in conditions like that, the gardai or the police would be called in immediately, and there would be outrage if judges did not jail the culprits.

I reminded the protest outside the embassy how we would not allow cattle to be transported like this, or animals to be caged like this. Why then are children being held like this?

I hope I would not have been silent in the 1930s or the 1940s. But I can blame myself if I am silent today. This is not about politics, this is about morality. This is not about what I think or do not think about Donald Trump or Jeff Sessions, this is about what I think about a small girl being pulled forcibly from her mother’s breast. This not about whether I think Donald Trump is like Herod, but about whether I fear these children could end up like Anne Frank, like the children whose stories I heard in Krakow and Auschwitz.

Sometimes evil is so great that crying out is our only prayer, but remaining silent is becomes our condemnation.

Zechariah was dumb-struck, indeed, but the end of his silence is a sign of his obedience to God’s hopes for the future.

And I know that the pregnant Elizabeth took comfort against any foreboding she may have had instinctively for her son when the words she heard from her cousin Mary, just a few verses before this morning’s reading, words in the Canticle Magnificat:

‘He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1: 51-53).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

An icon of the Birth of Saint the Baptist from the Monastery of Anopolis in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 1: 57-66, 80

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

Hymns: 3, God is love, let heaven adore him; 20, The king of love my shepherd is; 358, King of glory, King of peace.

Liturgical colour: White

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist
was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour
by the preaching of repentance:
lead us to repent according to his preaching
and, after his example,
constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice,
and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow-citizens with the saints
and the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached peace to those who were far off
and those who are near: (Ephesians 2: 19, 17).

The Blessing:

God give you the grace
to share the inheritance of Saint John the Baptist and of his saints in glory:

Saint John the Baptist depicted on a pillar in the Church of the Four Martyrs in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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