The faith of the Precursor.
As promised in the preceding post, here is the text, more or less, of a homily which I gave last night at a Mass in Dahlgren Chapel at Georgetown University. The Mass was the last of three 'official' Masses of Thanksgiving celebrated following my ordination to the priesthood, and it was also offered in memory of Father Thomas M. King, S.J. on the sixth anniversary of his death. The Mass celebrated was that of the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, with scripture readings (which admittedly don't figure much in the homily, which is more concerned with the general spirit of the feast) taken from Jeremiah 1:4-10, 1 Peter 1:8-12, and Luke 1:5-17. Though I'm not sure that the text can be fully appreciated outside the particular liturgical context in which it was delivered, I offer it here for the sake of attendees who may want a record of what I said, and for the hopeful edification of others who would like to have attended the Mass but were prevented from doing so by distance or other obligations.
It is a joy for me to be here with you, both to give thanks for my recent ordination and to honor the memory of Father Tom King, who was a friend and mentor to many of those who are here. As a proud Hoya, it is also good for me to come home to the Hilltop, and I feel particularly happy to do so for the first time as a priest. Robert Frost once said that, "if you have to love something, you could do worse than to give your heart to a college." I think those of us who attended Georgetown and know this place can appreciate the sentiment. On the other hand, Robert Frost also said that "home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." I'm grateful to this community for taking me in, and I'll try not to wear out my welcome.
I. Saint John the Precursor
Tonight we celebrate the Vigil of the Birth of St. John the Baptist. The feast of John’s birth, 'the main event,' as it were, takes place tomorrow, and tonight's celebration has an anticipatory character about it. The vigil is a part of the feast, but it has its own special prayers and scripture readings which are different from the ones you would hear if you came to Mass tomorrow. John the Baptist belongs to a very select company of people whom the Church honors with feasts that are preceded by vigils – the others who come immediately to mind are the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ himself, so that should tell you something about John’s place in the communion of saints.
What makes John the Baptist so significant is the way in which he prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ. As some of you know, in the Orthodox tradition, John is most often referred to not as John the Baptist but as "John the Forerunner," placing special emphasis on his role as one who anticipated the coming of Christ. We find a similar thought in the opening prayer of tonight’s Mass, which expresses the hope that, "attentive to what Saint John the Precursor urged, [we] may come safely to the One he foretold, our Lord Jesus Christ."
II. Tom King and Other Precursors
To be a precursor is to point out the way to another greater than oneself, to urge others along the way that leads them to the fulfillment of the vocation to which God has called them. This is what John the Baptist did, but we know others who have done the same. For many of us, Father Tom King was also a precursor; as a teacher and as a priest, as a friend and as a mentor, he helped to move us further along the way to becoming the people God invites us to be. He did not point to himself, but to Jesus Christ.
Even if you didn't know Tom King - and if you did not, you will surely hear stories about him after Mass tonight - I'm sure that you have known someone who played the role of a precursor for you. None of us would be here tonight if we had not been invited and nurtured by others in our journey of faith, and none of us would have found our own particular vocation if others had not pointed out the way for us.
In our own way, each of us is also called to be a precursor. We all have a duty to point out the way to others, even if, like John, we will not share in the same journey to the end. Those of you who are parents do this in raising your children, and those of us who are or who have been teachers do something like this with our students, urging them along the path of knowledge and discovery while knowing that they will ultimately know and discover things which we ourselves will never know and will never discover.
To be a precursor demands great faith. It took great faith for Zechariah and Elizabeth to become the parents of John the Baptist, accepting the gift given to them by God even though human reason would have suggested that they were to remain childless. It took great faith for John to complete his mission as the forerunner, and it takes great faith to fulfill the vocation which God has entrusted to each one of us, knowing that, like John, we will not see the fruit of our labors come to complete and perfect fulfillment. As we give thanks this evening for the gifts God has given us – the gift of faith, and the gift of having been encouraged in that faith by Tom King and others like him – let us also give thanks for the gifts that God continues to give us, as he nourishes us here with his Body and Blood.
Peace and good wishes to all who read these lines. AMDG.