Some days in the Church calendar give me pause. I don’t know about you, but the meanings of all our solemnities, feasts, and memorials aren’t always clear. It’s hard enough to understand the holy days of obligation, let alone all the non-required celebrations. Some days the logic of the Church is clear, but on others, when I look at the upcoming feasts, I stop to wonder what the heck the Church was thinking.
Yesterday’s celebration – The Nativity of John the Baptist – has always been curious to me. Admittedly, I’m too literal. In most questions of faith, that is my problem from the outset. I see what’s on the surface – the name, date, or historical information – and am blind to the depth of what is revealed below the surface.
Often, my faith needs help. It needs a rock tumbler of sorts. You know those machines that take ordinary rocks and spin them around until their edges are smooth and their inner colors radiant? They turn the plainest rocks into gems. Growing up, a kid in your neighborhood probably had one, and, if you were as nerdy as me, you thought it was pretty cool. Sometimes, like with the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist (and other churchy sounding things), I need a rock tumbler for faith. Luckily, I have one. Let me walk you through how it works.
At first, I hear something about the Church (teaching, feast day, tradition, ritual, etc.) and think “that’s weird, why do we do that?” Then my literal brain tries to explain it. Example: when I think of John the Baptist’s birth (JB for short), it doesn’t strike me as his most shining moment. Yes, it’s biblical and had some impressive in utero gymnastics and marital muteness (what wife doesn’t wish her husband speechless every so often, right?). But, at the same time, JB’s birth plays second fiddle to his ministry, to his baptizing. We don’t call JB “the Baptist” by mistake. JB’s ministry makes it into all four gospels, his death in three, but in only one gospel (Luke) do we hear of his birth. The faith tumbler is usually loud at first and produces few obvious results, as you can see.
Generally, when this tumbling process begins it doesn’t cue me in that it’s started. Rather, I mistake the noise of the faith tumbler for my own frustration and keep searching for some literal satisfaction. After my biblical strikeout, I dive headfirst into history. The fact that we don’t actually know JB’s birthdate doesn’t surprise me, but when I start finding evidence that Luke’s account of JB’s birth is more likely a construction of scriptural allusions (not illusions) than it is historical fact, my mind starts spinning even more.
Thank God, after long enough, my frustration mounts and I give up. I let go. I get frustrated with the Church and wonder: Why they don’t they just stick to Jesus and forget all these other nonessential feasts? They’re unneeded, a historical (some, not all), and it’s just mixing up the Gospel message…
That’s when it hits me. The sharp edges of my literalness soften. The walls of my attitude give way. The roughhewn rock of my faith vanishes and its inner colors come forth. I see what was there from the very beginning and what will be there until the end of time. The Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist is not just about John the Baptist; it isn’t just about history or allusion or mistaken priority either. It’s about today and it’s about Jesus’ coming. It’s about us and the fulfillment of the kingdom now.
Did you hear that beep? That was the faith tumbler. Its cycle is finished and I’m lucky for it.
Mark Bartholet is the Pastoral Associate for Faith Formation at St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, NC.