Today is the Feast of Nativity of John the Baptist, the day when a fierce wildness entered the world and began to call it to account. The story is a strange one: an elderly priest, alone at the altar of God; an angel who brings him good tidings, then strikes him mute when he is not quick to believe; nine months of silence, while the child grows in the womb; finally, a naming: John, which no one in that family has been named before.
It is a story of the upending of the human order of things — even of those aspects of it which were believed to have come from God. The smoke of the incense scatters on the wind of the angel’s wings. The orderly naming of family is broken, so that something new may come into the world.
And why? According to the angel, so that one will come “to turn the hearts of fathers to the children.” (Luke 1:17). It is a strange phrase; it rings oddly on our ears, which are more accustomed to the fifth commandment, which enjoins children to honor their parents. But to honor one’s children is to be attentive to the future: to be aware of the kind of world we are bequeathing to them.
We’re not doing so well at that, these days. Tens of thousands of children have been detained at our borders, in subhuman conditions, denied soap, toothbrushes, or warm blankets, sleeping on concrete floors and trying to eat frozen food which has not even been reheated. If these conditions had been imposed by their own parents, the U.S. government would have intervened to place the children in protective custody; today, the government inflicts such harm, while too many Americans remain silent or passive or complain but do nothing. Of the children who were born here, 21% (about fifteen million) live in poverty. Approximately 1.5 million schoolchildren are wrestling with homelessness. And that’s without even looking at the state of the ecosphere, which threatens to take away our first, last, and best home if we do not change our ways.
We need the witness of John the Baptist today. Harsh, acerbic, scathing as he was, still — he pointed to a God who is utterly transcendent, to a God whose pure goodness simply will not tolerate the harm we inflict on one another. Because when we turn our world over to our basest instincts, when we allow cruelty to supplant the law of the land, the true name of judgement is Love, and the true name of accountability is Hope, and the true name of repentance is Mercy. God’s mercy on us, and ours on one another.