This week we will take up the collection for the retired religious who served in our diocese. It is one of the many second collections mandated during the year. As some people have noted, it is one of very few that we advertise extensively and, along with the collection for the Holy Land on Good Friday, the only one for which I write a letter to the parish requesting generosity. There is, not unsurprisingly, a story here.
Like all the collections it is for a good cause. The proceeds support the orders of sisters, brothers and priests who are not part of a diocese. It is a national collection taken in every diocese for the entire country. We must remember that these people took a vow of poverty but with the assumption that their basic needs would be taken care of by the Catholic community. If there was any retirement plan, it would have been that the orders would keep growing: creating a built-in support system. This did not occur and they need our help.
I have a more personal reason and one that illuminates today’s reading indeed the very presence and purpose of St. John the Baptist.
My father took sick when I was in 7th grade and by that summer was sent to the Veteran’s Hospital in Bay Ridge. We lived in Jackson Heights and it took hours to get there by train and bus. When the sisters and one of the priests in the parish discovered this, they took turns driving my mom and me back and forth.
The priest was Chinese Redemptorist, the sisters were from the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. He returned to China during the Great Cultural Revolution and disappeared, perhaps martyred, the sisters are all dead now as well. Indeed, the last sister who even knew them recently passed away herself. None of them ever gave me a talk on the meaning of Church or told me that this is what you must do to serve God. They didn’t have to. Nothing could have more powerful than their actions. It was a tremendous sacrifice, especially for the sisters who had very restricted free time, but that I remember most clearly is that it seemed perfectly natural. Of course, what would be more obvious that when in need the church – especially its ministers – would reach out to help? This taught me more about what the church is than everything I learned in the seminary and was worth a hundred seminars on ministry.
It also gave me an early lesson on the importance of personal relationships. We become who we are by the connections we develop with other people. This informs every part of our lives. I could have read in a textbook that a parish needs to be a community. It is as true as 2 plus 2 equals 4. But without a real-life connection, about as personally meaningful.
These relationships linger. It is obvious why I find this collection personally important but just as true that it would influence how I look at Jesus and John the Baptist.
John the Baptist was an embarrassment to the early church. Because of this, theologians of every persuasion agree that he existed and that Jesus knew and was mentored by him. The movement started by John did not die with him. The Acts of the Apostles report that there were people who followed John 20 years after his execution (Acts 19). John’s disciples were in competition with the infant church. All the gospel writers show Jesus’ connection with John, but each one assures us that Jesus was superior to him. In today’s gospel we see that although everyone was going out to receive the Baptism of John, John himself says that there is one, Jesus, who will follow him of whose sandals he, John, is not worthy to carry. Luke is particularly creative and makes Jesus and John cousins with the Baptist leaping for joy in Mary’s womb when she visits Elizabeth.
They found this necessary because John did baptize Jesus. If we are sure of the historical accuracy of anything in the Bible we are sure of this. It is so inconvenient that no one would have made it up. Jesus will himself say in Matthew, “That no student is above his teacher nor servant about his master.” (Matt. 24:10)
I can understand why this may be uncomfortable, but I find it reassuring. A principle of early Christianity was “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed” (St Athanasius of Alexandria). This means that what Jesus did not experience, made part of himself cannot be used to save us. The ancients understood clearly that this was especially true of things which make us weak. Jesus as we celebrate at Christmas was born as we are, weak and helpless. Although the church has wisely not spoken definitively on what Jesus knew and when he knew it, we must assume that as St. Luke says, “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and Man.” (Luke 2:52)
I think we may also assume that this was more than leaning how to count. Deep personal relationships would have shown him the meaning of being a Jew. He would have seen firsthand the greatness his people had attained, but also where sin had left its mark. The community which formed around St. John the Baptist would have put flesh on the scriptures that spoke of repentance and renewal. We will see this more clearly in next week’s Gospel passage, for now let us remember only the need for each other to reveal the presence of God in his people to us.
The priests and sisters in my parish almost 60 years ago were my John the Baptist. They showed me what I should expect and what would be expected of me. I hope I have been worthy of their example. The message is in a sense universal but the gospel always finds a way to be up front, personal and of the moment. For the Church in general and certainly for St. Charles Borromeo Parish, we need more people to accept the call to ministry. For good or bad and probably a bit of both, we will not have the priests and sisters and brothers we once had. We must work very hard to create that community which I found so natural so many years ago. And indeed it is only a community if we don’t make reference to it, we just live it. Do fish know they are in water?
Partly we need to intellectually evaluate the situation, but mostly we need to hear the call from God. It usually happens through the influence of a special person. To act like Jesus, we need to find our own John the Baptist.