Just as St. Luke’s Gospel contains an account of Jesus’ conception and birth, it also tells us of the conception and birth of the Messiah’s forerunner, John the Baptist, which is reminiscent of Sarah’s conception of Isaac in the Book of Genesis. Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to name their only child, conceived in old age, after years of barrenness, after his father. But Elizabeth declared he would be called John, or Yochan[anan- added ex post facto], a name confirmed by Zechariah in writing, which name means “gift of God. So, it is right and good that “John” is such a common name for men and, in some cultures, women, as the name “Gianna” attests, because all children are gifts of God.
The Lord Himself leaves us no doubt about the importance of John the Baptist. In Luke’s Gospel, after assuring some of the Baptist’s disciples who came to inquire of Him that He, not John, was the Messiah, Jesus asked those to whom He was speaking, “What did you go out to the desert to see—a reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine garments? Those who dress luxuriously and live sumptuously are found in royal palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet” (Luke 7:24b-26). Then, quoting the prophet Malachi, indicates that the Baptist is the fulfillment of the prophecy, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, he will prepare your way before you” (Luke 7:27; Malachi 3:1). He concludes by saying that “among those born of women, no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28).
Next to our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is no person more important to God’s plan of salvation than John the Baptist. This is made more manifest in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, which feature iconostases, on the lower of row of which, often referred to as the Sovereign row, along with icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary, is an icon of the Baptist. The great solemnity of his nativity, which is an observance that goes back to the early church, is observed today by Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, as well as our Orthodox brothers and sisters, also serves as evidence of the Baptist’s greatness and importance.
Something that is easy to overlook in all of this is the great joy with which the previously childless couple received the news that they were going to have a child. Until very recently in human history childlessness for a married couple was seen as a great deprivation, even a curse, sometimes it was even viewed, often erroneously, as Scripture attests, as a punishment from God. On the other hand, many children were seen as a great blessing, even a sign of divine favor.
We know from Zechariah’s experience in the sanctuary of the temple that he had implored God continually for children, which is why Gabriel the archangel, the same messenger sent to announce to the Blessed Virgin that she, too, would bear a son, told Zechariah that his prayer had been heard (Luke 1:13). After telling Zechariah, who was struck dumb because of his refusal to believe that God had heard and answered his prayers, Gabriel told him, “you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord” and that he would “filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:14-15). Gabriel, in anticipation of what Jesus would say later, also stated that Zechariah’s son, John, the Baptist, the Forerunner, Christ’s Precursor, was to be the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, going before the Lord “in the power and spirit of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:17). It seems that very often in our time childlessness is seen as a blessing and having children, if not quite a curse, then at least a tremendous burden.
Last Thursday Catholics in the United States, at the instigation and urging of our bishops, began the Fortnight for Freedom, a two week period leading up the Fourth of July, when we celebrate our nation declaring independence from the unjust rule of the British monarchy over the colonies. These two weeks are a time of fasting, daily prayer, study of our founding documents on religious freedom, and study about the unjust Health and Human Services Department mandate that Catholic institutions offer and/or pay for contraceptive coverage in health insurance packages offered to employees, which would be a direct violation of Church teaching. Bowing to this executive decree would constitute material cooperation with evil since these “preventative services” would be offered through the insurance company not directly by the Church.
There is no aspect of our Catholic faith that puts us more at odds with the world than our insistence on the fundamentally objective nature of morality. The Church, in the face of great societal pressure, continues to insist that there are actions that are always and everywhere wrong for everyone regardless of intention or circumstance. Of course, we make the necessary distinction between sin, properly understood, which involves knowledge and deliberate acts of the will, and wrong-doing, but the objectively evil nature of certain actions is not malleable. Like the Baptist, the Church is not a reed swayed by the wind, and is prophetic.
While the particular teaching in question may vary, at certain points in our lives this concrete reality is very difficult for all of us, which is why we must constantly acknowledge our need for God’s grace and forgiveness, which is always already given us in Jesus Christ, and support one another in our sometimes uneven efforts to live the truth humbly out of love, confident that it is the path to joy.
As Catholics we must attend to the particular issue that gave rise to the Church’s clash with the state. If we fail to do this our insistence on religious liberty will remain a generic plea, lacking any concrete substance. The issue is one that we very often go to great lengths to avoid when we do not simply ignore it; I speak of the Church’s very pastoral and unambiguous teaching, not on birth control, as many imprecisely and erroneously insist, since NFP is morally legitimate, concerning contraception.
So, in addition for praying for freedom of religion, which must not be restricted to freedom of worship, which reduces a robust freedom down to what we do in Church on Sunday, let us also use this Fortnight for Freedom as a time to both examine and better form our consciences in accord with the teachings of our Church.