One of the tools that I use in my ministry in order to get to know people better is playing games. It’s a skill my parents taught me when we would visit relatives. I learned to play card games such as 500 and Pepper when we would visit my aunts and uncles. And, typically, just as much gossiping…I mean conversation…would happen as cards. In my first assignment, I used my five hundred skills to get in a card club. Now, admittedly, I was the only member of the club under seventy but it helped me connect with some parishioners and listen to their concerns.
When I came here, it was harder to find card players so I find myself playing more board games with some of the people that live in my apartment complex. One of our favorite games is Cycloneopoly. I usually play with two very competitive guys and a not so competitive woman. The other day, we started playing and it became obvious that the guys were winning. They had most of the properties and were working on a deal that would give both of them monopolies. I had one property and the woman had the other matching property. When she landed on the second one, it became obvious what I needed to do. I gave her a monopoly and some money in exchange for a couple of less expensive properties. Everyone realized that I was throwing the entire game just so that the boys would lose.
It probably seems a little bit odd to throw a board game just so that two ultra-competitive guys would not be able to win. It’s almost as strange as this celebration, the solemnity of the birth of St. John the Baptist. There are very few celebrations that the church allows to interrupt the normal flow of Sundays. You see, today should be the twelfth Sunday in Ordinary time. But, there are a few celebrations that are so important that we fix dates to their celebration, December 25th, being just one example. A few other examples include the presentation of the Lord, the Annunciation of the Lord, the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, The transfiguration of the Lord, The Assumption of Mary, and a few others. What makes this celebration especially odd is that, unlike all those other celebrations, this is for someone who didn’t directly experience the central mystery of our faith. In other words, John the Baptist was dead long before Jesus died and rose. You may remember that John the Baptist was beheaded by King Herod when he denounced Herod’s unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. The gospels seem to agree that Jesus’ ministry began after John had left the scene.
So, why is this celebration important enough to make it such a priority. I mean, we don’t even know all that much about John the Baptist in the first place. The pope, in his new book Jesus of Nazareth, points to speculation that John may have been associated with a Jewish separatist group known as the Essenes. They lived close to the Dead Sea in a type of monastic environment. John may have begun a ministry just to the north of them of ritual purification through immersion or baptism, as we have come to know it. The Pope speculates that several of Jesus’ disciples may have originally been John’s. For instance, we know from the gospel of John that Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of John’s followers. The Pope also believes that Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot may have come from this group since the Essenes were likely the group that eventually rebelled against Rome and were called the Zealots. It’s also possible that Jesus was one of John’s disciples before he began his ministry.
All of this may help us understand John a little better but it still doesn’t make it clear why this celebration is important. I’d like to suggest that the reasoning is in the color the church assigns to the garment I’m wearing and the celebration itself. I’m wearing white, a color that, in terms of mass, harkens to Easter and resurrection. I’m not wearing red, a color that points to one who died in witness to the death of the Lord, a martyr. And, the celebration is his birthday, not the day of his death. We are celebrating his life and, in particular, how he prepared the way for Jesus. That is what we all remember about John. He’s the guy that, from the beginning, was chosen to help people have Jesus in their life. It wasn’t all about John. It was all about Jesus and John had to tell people that.
There’s a desire in all of us to be special, to be the best. But, most of us will not be superman, never have the opportunity to reach out and pull the guy away from being hit by a bus, or never find the cure for cancer. But maybe we can prepare those who will. All too often, we can see the gifts in other people clearer than we can see our own. We should be willing to be like John the Baptist and help others recognize the gifts and talents in their own lives. This, I believe, is what the church wants us to see in this celebration of the birth of John the Baptist: that helping to prepare people for God’s presence in their lives is just as important as having our own relationship to God.