Rorate Caeli

Fontgombault Sermon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist: A Call to Conversion

Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
(Fontgombault, June 24, 2016)

Manus Domini erat cum illo.
For the hand of the Lord was with him.
(Lk 1:66)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,

On this day, feast of the holy Precursor, the Church asks for her faithful the grace of spiritual joys and for their hearts to be guided into the way of eternal salvation. St. John the Baptist, inasmuch as during his life he pointed to Him Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, still remains the privileged intercessor for those who seek God.

According to the Gospel, the joys that were the landmarks of his life were essentially spiritual, and of unrivaled depths, except by she who was the Redeemer’s Mother. What is striking in John, is his intimacy with God, to such an extent that, in a way that could be described as paradoxical, he is the self-effacing precursor of Him Who is constantly coming to him. “He must increase: but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30) O, what a fruitful humility!

The events that marked his birth astounded his parents’ relations:

And fear came upon all their neighbours: and all these things were noised abroad over all the hill country of Judea. And all they that had heard them laid them up in their heart, saying: “What an one, think ye, shall this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. (Lk 1:65-66)

His birth makes men ponder in their hearts, which is the place where they may encounter God. The same will later hold for Mary, who will keep in her own heart the events that surround Jesus’ birth, so as to ponder them in peace and silence (cf. Lk 2:19). From his mother’s womb, John makes himself the prophet of Him Who has come to him in Mary’s womb. John’s mission is simple: to prepare the way for the Lord, to proclaim to the people the good news of salvation. His strength is the hand of the Lord that has rested upon his life, and has been accepted, and has remained upon him. The reading of Prophet Isaiah, and its application to John, emphasises how each authentic prophet should first of all be called:

The Lord hath called me from the womb, from the bowels of my mother He hath been mindful of my name. (Is 49:1)
God then endows His hero with the strength that he will need to fulfil his mission:And He hath made my mouth like a sharp sword. […] He hath made me as a chosen arrow. (Is 49:2)

Last, God’s presence remains near His messenger:

In the shadow of His hand He hath protected me. […] In His quiver He hath hidden me. And He said to me: “Thou art my servant Israel, for in thee will I glory.” (Is 49:2-3)

This loving look and presence of God upon His prophet’s life, and more generally upon each of our lives, is at their veryinception, their development, and their fulfilment. It will endure in eternity.

The Year of Mercy is an opportunity to renew our conscience of this presence, this intimacy, and the heart-to-heart dialogue that must ensue from it. It is also an invitation to arrange the layout of our lives, insofar as we can, in such a way that they become vessels prepared to receive the look and hand of God. Before evil and his own sin, each of us may adopt two attitudes. The first one is that of Adam and Eve, of Cain, and so many others since then: to take flight. Before evil, emancipation from God shows up in many fields: thinkers make up new ideologies, while forgetting that at the end of the road, man is called to encounter Someone, and not to bump into the wall of life’s absurdity. Legislators pass laws, while forgetting that their own power is limited by a Maker Who has ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight (cf. Wis 11:21). As a result, are things going that well?

The second attitude of man before evil finds its roots in the question that God asks of Adam: “Where art thou?” (Gen 3:9), and in the fact that God clothes man and woman with garments before casting them out from paradise (cf. Gen 3:21). Even though he be a sinner, man is still sought and protected by God. Therefore, every man is called to become ever more the prodigal son, to go back to the Father Who is expecting him, to realise that his inheritance can be kept only in an ever closer bond with Him Who is the Author of all gifts, and first of all, of life.

Let us listen to John’s insistent call for conversion. Let us ponder the testimony of his deep intimacy with the Lord. At all times, apostles should enter the school of the Precursor.

Let us quote as a conclusion these few lines, excerpted from a work of a dear friend of our monastery, who has just sung the praises of the Precursor:

Indeed, never has man been more tempted to believe that nothing makes sense, that he is perhaps living the last moments of his adventure. An adventure that has begun without him, and will end without him… Where is today’s John the Baptist? Does there exist today a John the Baptist? Whose Precursor? Decreasing before Whom? Before Christ? Indeed, before Christ! Today, Christ has a thousand faces, a million faces, where we can contemplate His Face. Can’t we see Him yet? Yes, indeed. The night is nearly over. The very first rays of dawn are showing through…

Every gift, every look of affection, every gesture of love, however humble and almost invisible it may be, is more powerful than death. More powerful even than the little lever of Archimedes to move whole universes. If every one, or maybe just a few ones, agreed to love, were it only from time to time, they would become in these perilous times, which may be the ultimate times, God’s precursors. They would fill God with wonder. They would prepare, while accepting that their own glory should be erased, the glory of the ultimate Advent. The lover weaves with love the path of blood that the King of glory is going to tread. The lover doesn’t know it. The loved One knows it. The loved One can see Himself in the lover. [Dominique Ponnau, Jean Baptiste (Salvator, Paris, 2015)]