In the Church’s vast annual cycle of feasts, she celebrates just three birthdays. The most well known of them, of course, is the nativity of our Lord on December 25. Everyone remembers that one, since it’s Jesus’ birthday…but we’re the ones who get the presents! We also celebrate the birthday day of his blessed mother, Mary; that’s on September 8, precisely nine months after we honor her Immaculate Conception on December 8. (Don’t forget your mother’s birthday!) And this Sunday, we celebrate the nativity of St. John the Baptist. Why today? Well, when the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear God’s Son (recalled on March 25, nine months before Christmas), he offered as proof the fact that her elderly, barren cousin, Elizabeth, was already pregnant—sixth months along, to be exact. And so now, three months after the feast of the Annunciation, we celebrate John’s birthday.
The birth of every child has us asking—as did the neighbors at the end of today’s gospel reading—“What will this child be?” Each newborn is a mystery yet to unfold. But this is a particularly apt question at the birth of John the Baptist, given the miraculous signs that surrounded it. Family and friends had some understandable expectations for this boy. First, they expected he’d be named Zechariah, after his father…but instead, he’s named John—the name given by the angel who announced his birth. Then they expected that he’d become a temple priest, just like dear ol’ dad (since the Old Testament priesthood was a hereditary one, and both sides of his family were of priestly stock)…yet he rather becomes a wild and fiery prophet baptizing out in the desert. And as Paul’s preaching reminds us in our second reading, the crowds who heard John thought that he was the long expected Messiah…but John insisted he was only preparing the Savior’s way.
We have our own hopes and dreams for our children. And children grow to have hopes and dreams of their own about the future. But the fact that St. John the Baptist didn’t fit any of the expectations others had of him is a great reminder that God has his own hopes and dreams for every child. How often do we stop to consider those?
The Church celebrates these few sacred birthdays because when God has a message to send to the world, when there’s a wrong to be righted, when there’s important work to be done, he doesn’t do so by means of earthquake or thunderbolt; he does it by sending a baby. These tiny children often come from humble roots, born in unlikely circumstances—when and where you’d least expect it. But God sends a baby who carries his own hopes and dreams—not just for this individual child, but for the whole world. Each one is entirely unique, with a mission, a vocation, all his own.
You see, the greatest events in human history are not a matter of who won the battle or who won the election; they’re babies. God has a place in his plan for every one, even before they’re formed in the womb. And each one carries the crucial message that God hasn’t grown discouraged with us, that God hasn’t given up hope for the human race.
It’s so important that we see this! It’s so important that children grow up seeing this! We need to make sure that children know that they’re precious—to us and to God. We need to make sure that children know that they’ve been given a role by God that only they can play. We need to make sure that children know that they’re filled with immense potential—a part of the fulfillment of God’s dream for us all.
While this is true of every fragile, tiny life born into this world, two other upcoming birthdays can help us to see how it’s also the case on a wider scale.
In just ten days, it’ll be July 4—the birthday of our nation. What were those brave patriots dreaming of in 1776 when they signed the Declaration of Independence? What were their hopes for these United States? What did they imagine we’d become? And what about God’s dream for our country? For our place in the great family of nations? Are we fulfilling his plan?
And even sooner, on July 1, we will celebrate Foundation Day—the birthday of St. André’s parish. It was 177 years ago this month that the first recorded Mass was offered in what is now our parish, when a few Catholics in the young settlement of Malone gathered with a visiting priest in John McFarlene’s house to pray. What were those pioneering souls thinking of? What hopes did they have? And what about God’s dream for the Catholic Church here in our community? Are we living up to our potential?
What will this child be?
What will this nation be?
What will this parish be?
As we—every one of us—play our own part in the unfolding of the mystery, with expectations and hopes of our own, let us make sure our highest goal is to fulfill God’s dream for us—for each and for all.