The American political drama "West Wing" has been a huge hit on television in recent seasons. Well-scripted, cleverly cast and finely acted, it dramatizes events around the most powerful office in the world. This is one drama series that does not need to invent stories. With former White House insiders hired as consultants, "West Wing" explores important issues and demonstrates the process by which a public position is adopted. The best aspect of this drama, however, is that it portrays the power of the back room players involved in the process. Every democracy, every institution, including the Church, have people, who are not the public face of the organization, but are very powerful in shaping what the group stands for and where it goes. A politician friend of mine says, "Congress or Parliament is theater sports writ large; real power and the important decisions are worked out in the back rooms, small offices and corridors." John the Baptist is the greatest of the back-room boys in the Christian story. When the Gospels were written, the significance of John’s role as a herald and mentor came to the fore. In first century Palestine there may not have been parliamentary corridors for John the Baptist to strut, but his words and actions on the banks of the Jordan were powerful in recognizing who was to follow, what the Christian faith would stand for and where it would head. Is it any wonder, then, that the Birth of John the Baptist is one of the most ancient feasts commemorated in the earliest Christian Church? Its position in relation to Christmas is important too. By 354 the Christians had taken over the Roman celebration of the winter solstice as Christmas Day. John’s birthday is on the summer solstice. From the summer solstice the northern hemisphere’s sun declines in length and warmth until it reaches it is reborn at the winter solstice. Hence, John comes to prepare the way for the eternal light we celebrate in Jesus at Christmas. In Luke’s Gospel John embodies the old covenant, made to Israel. Jesus, the new and everlasting covenant, made, not just to Israel, but also to all people everywhere sees the power and warmth of God’s love for us burst forth for eternity. Many biblical scholars now think that, for a period of time, Jesus was most probably a disciple of John the Baptist. John may have helped Jesus discern his special calling and to recognize his destiny. Whatever of that, we know that Jesus made a break with John in many ways and called his own disciples. Jesus does not wait for followers to come to him, he heads to the towns and villages--where the people are and he speaks to them in ways they can understand. Jesus preaches to Israel first, but then to the Gentiles. Jesus rejects the harsh, ascetical life of the desert for spirituality of the everyday and unlike John, Jesus does not just preach repentance for sins, but preaches conversion through forgiveness and compassion. As Louise Pambrun puts it, John’s ministry was "like the fast before the feast." Like John, however, Jesus never wavered from the price that must be paid for faith in our just and merciful God. So this feast flags that we have six months to Christmas, not for shopping or any of the other excessive elements that have hijacked that day, but to recommit ourselves to living out a spirituality that values the everyday and the ordinary, that knows the power of compassion and mercy and is ready to pay the price for living it. Today is the feast of back-room players. May all of them exercise their power with integrity. And who knows, maybe the real-life counterparts of West Wing’s Sam, Josh and CJ will, one day, have their birthdays declared a public holy-day. I bet they’re quietly working on it right now! Richard Leonard, S.J.
The Birthday of John the Baptist