You have to be pretty special to get a feast day celebrating your birthday in the Catholic Church. There are three people with this honor and the first that comes to mind, of course, is Jesus on December 25. The second is Mary, his Mother, on September 8. The third winner is John the Baptist whose birthday we celebrate today, June 24. The Church allows the usual Sunday readings and prayers to be replaced with ones dealing with John because of his close connection with the life and ministry of Christ. John was the forerunner, the one who would go before the Lord to "Prepare the way of the Lord". As we reflect on the birth of John the Baptist we marvel at how unlikely his existence was: he was born of older parents who were thought to be unable to have a child—a source a great suffering for many couples then as it is now.
The angel told a skeptical Zechariah that not only would their son bring joy and gladness to them, but in fact "many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord". The angel revealed that John had a special task to perform in his life. John's glory, the reason we honor him at mass today, lies not in his worldly accomplishments or in the recognition he received from the people of his time. John's importance and holiness lay in the fact that he was "great in the sight of the Lord; his human dignity came from the fact that he was made in the image and likeness of God, called and loved by the Lord.
In the sight of other people we are sometimes held in esteem, other times in contempt, but God sees through that pettiness and loves us—great or humble, rich or poor, famous or obscure, simply as we are, precious in his eyes even if scorned by others. Perhaps we can take a lesson from this as to the value of all human life. Even an infant destined for worldly insignificance is "great in the sight of the Lord" and deserves the same welcome that John the Baptist received from his parents. We see the absolute value of every human life in God's eyes, especially the lives of the unborn, in the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you”.
This feast provides an opportunity for us as Americans to contemplate things going on in our country. Recently there has been much discussion, debate, and now proposed legislation over the practice of separating children from parents when they attempt to cross our nation’s borders illegally. Not that this practice of separation is new but the decision to prosecute each person who crosses the border illegally is what has increased the number of these separations.
Now I’m not going to go into the politics of this policy as it stands currently or as it was during the terms of past presidents; I don’t think the homily is the proper forum for that. However, I do want to reflect on the apparent disconnect or double standard that exists throughout this national discussion on immigration, borders, and national security.
This debate has centered largely on the principle of human dignity and how we honor that even when people are not citizens of our country or are potentially entering with criminal intent. There has been a lot of talk about children separated from their families and how their dignity is being violated. There is a strong sense that families should not be broken up. There has also been many thoughts shared about the trauma inflicted on the children because of this; how they are crying themselves to sleep, feeling alone, abandoned, and full of fear. I think there is truth in these concerns and valid objections to this policy that must be addressed.
At the same time, one has to wonder why there is such an immediate uproar for the way these children are being treated while so many stay silent in the face of the thousands of innocent, defenseless babies that have been and continue to be killed each and every day in our country through legalized abortion. Why Pope Francis is quoted by many as condemning this policy at our borders but then largely ignored this past weekend when he stated that, “abortion is the white-gloved equivalent to the Nazi-era eugenics program.” As a nation, are we not the height of moral hypocrisy as we call for an end to policies that separate families from their children while at the same time maintaining that it is a basic human right to abort one’s unborn child for any reason? Why have lawmakers, advocates, citizens, media, and even scores of Christians practiced selective outrage on one issue and not the other? If we think we can have a true, lasting solution to the problem of immigration, the separation of children from their parents and other issues of human dignity while tolerating and even defending the practice of abortion, we are out of our minds. Either we value and protect every human life as sacred without exception or we say that some persons are more valuable than others and can be treated differently. There is really no middle ground on this particular point. We cannot fix one without addressing the other. And heaven help us if we only confront these issues when they become politically expedient or popular!!
The birth and life of John the Baptist, which we celebrate today, is a perfect inspiration for our times. He was one of the most unexpected and unlikely of children to be born but imagine what the world would have lost without him! He had a message to proclaim, which offended some, but he did it fearlessly, even though it cost him his freedom and eventually his head. Might we need a little dose of his courage and zeal to proclaim the gospel teaching on the inviolable dignity of every human person, regardless of whether they are American citizens, migrant children, born or still in the womb? Mindful of John the Baptist and the "greatness" he held in the eyes of the Lord, even before his birth, let us pray that all God's children may be welcomed into life with love, for all are truly "great in the sight of the Lord.”