Are There Prophets in our Times?
Originally posted in Facebook by Fr. Michael Cheong, FMVD
This Sunday, we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, the precursor of Jesus Christ, who announced the coming of the Messiah into the world and prepared the way for it.
John the Baptist is probably the most cited person in the gospels apart from Christ himself. What was his role in the mission of Jesus? Why was he thus mentioned in every single Gospel account? And most importantly, what does his life have to say about our own Christian lives today?
John was the cousin of Jesus. In fact, the Gospel today celebrates his birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth, six months before that of Christ's own. And the most significant thing about the account of his birth was the name he was given by his parents. In Hebrew tradition, it was common to name a child after someone in the family ancestry, but there was no such name as John in the antecedents of Zechariah. It was thus a surprise for everyone that both parents insisted on the name John, and probably wondered where they got this name from. "What then will this child be?" Even Zechariah, who was struck dumb in a vision, was enabled to speak the very moment he confirmed John's name! The simplest conclusion was that this name came from God.
"Hear me, O coastlands, listen, O distant peoples. The LORD called me from birth, from my mother's womb he gave me my name." The first reading, taken from the Prophet Isaiah, confirms the Hebrew belief that prophets are called personally by God, and that even their names are pronounced to them in their conception in the wombs of their mothers. John was indeed a prophet. It was thus in his naming, that everyone knew that his name was not of human origin, and that his life was deeply inserted into the plan of God.
Every Christian is a prophet by the grace of baptism. In fact, the whole Church has that prophetic vocation of preparing the way for Christ to enter into the particular 'worlds' of every human heart. John the Baptist is the model for all of us to understand what it means to be a prophet in our day. It is not so much to be someone with the capacity to predict the future, but rather to introduce Christ into the lives of everyone, no matter what their past, present or future might bring. The prophet of the New Testament is someone who is secure that the ultimate future of all will be good when we live it seeking to fulfill our purpose in the plan of God. What is God's plan for your life, from its beginning to its final days? How does living your prophetic call make a difference in your life and that of those around you?
Nobody has certainty of the future, not especially in our day, where everything seems to be changing at an incredible rate. But if you think about it, it was probably no better in the time of John. A prophet is someone who transmits security and stability in the midst of chaos, who proclaims the good news as someone who has experienced the closeness of God in his own struggles, that the coming of Christ to our lives as Savior and Lord is a daily event. He encourages others to believe in the goodness of God, and that it is never too late to turn our lives around when we find we are off-track. A prophet is not afraid to speak the truth and be insistent on what is good for us and warn us to turn from lifestyles that harm us. A prophet is someone who strives to grow in virtue, and of that there is no better example than John. Jesus himself affirmed that "of all men born of women, there is no one as great as John." Yet for those who who struggle to live a virtuous life, he adds that "yet the smallest in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he." A prophet is humble, not out of personal merit, but because of the constant mercies that he experiences in Christ. A prophet realizes gradually that there is nothing better that one can do for another than to journey with them towards God, and make Christ more real in their lives. "He must increase, I must decrease." A prophet may seem a stubborn person by nature, because despite all the frustrations and misunderstandings and even apparently fruitless labors, he seems to continue believing in his God and submitting his life to Him.
What does a prophetic life do for us? It makes us persons of character, who are not swayed to and fro by the winds of society, but are set on certain values that give clarity and purpose in life. It also challenges those around them to be persons of character, to value themselves as persons and not simply drift along with the latest social fashions. It does not make us weird or strange, but simply clarifies what is truly important for us, and to live and give ourselves for those things that are worthy of ourselves. Are you a prophet? Do you recognize the prophets around you? Authentic people... who can be those ordinary people already in your midst.
Why is this feast of the birth of John the Baptist important for us? Why does the Church raise the dignity of this feast almost equal to those of Christ's? Christ came into the world to save humanity from corruption, self-destruction and ultimate frustration, and when we look at the world, we can see that this mission is as relevant as ever today. What does the world need today? Prophets, persons of true character, who do not necessarily have to make a lot of noise, but simply know what they are living for and encourage others to live a worthy life. They may or may not say it, but they are deeply "friends of God", like John the Baptist, "friend of the bridegroom" who finds his happiness and fulfillment when someone else has found meaning and realization in their union with Christ's life. The world needs prophets, be they ordinary or extraordinary ones. The Church has been a witness to this prophetic vocation throughout the centuries, and in the darkest times of human history where the world was most in need of the salvation from Christ, what was always able to turn things around was the birth of a prophetic vocations in their time.
Fr. Michael Cheong is a Singaporean missionary priest of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity. His current assignment is in Rome, Italy.