"What then will this child become?"

There is a common theme running through the readings for the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist, Mass during the day, and that is your purpose and mine. I know that Isaiah 49:1-6 pertains directly to God's servant Isaiah (technically, I suppose, this is Deutero-Isaiah, but who names their kid Deutero-Isaiah?), later understood in a spiritual sense to refer to Jesus (especially v.6 which is applied to Jesus by Simeon in Luke 2:32), that Acts 13:22-26 concerns specifically John the Baptist and Jesus, and their unique and divine missions, and that Luke 1:57-66, 80 speaks of John the Baptist and his coming ministry of repentance, which will prepare the way for Jesus. These are irreplaceable and irreducible events and people in salvation history. They were called forth by God to do what they did. I do not share, that is, the sloppy theology of Christian singer/songwriter Jeremy Camp, who asks in his song This Man, "would you take the place of this man?" Silly me, from the New Testament to Augustine to Anselm to the present day, I have understood with the whole of the Christian tradition that Jesus Christ is the unique sacrifice, the only one able to take the weight of the world's sin as perfect God and perfect man and redeem humanity. So, no, I would not and cannot take the place of "this man." Or Isaiah. Or John the Baptist. The question is, can we be the man, woman or child God intended us to be, with all of our unique gifts, talents and graces?

 And make no mistake, God intends for us, no less than for Isaiah, Jesus or John the Baptist. We have been called forth with a purpose. Like Isaiah, "the Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me" (49:1). And again like Isaiah, I have often said, or thought, if not, admittedly, using such eloquent words, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity" (49:4). I have felt despair and wondered what the point of my life was, what sort of mistake God made with me, yet Isaiah's response to his own query is always apropos: "yet surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with my God." It can be struggle sometimes to say these words and even believe them, but they are true.


We, too, have been called from the womb to serve God, even when it is not clear how that is the case. Is it possible to prepare the way as King David and John the Baptist did, without seeing or understanding the fruits of our labors in our own lifetimes? I think it is, just by living our lives, caring for our families, going to work, and living as God desires of us. I never met my mother's father, who was an old man when he died even before my Mother's wedding; he was born in 1871 and my Mother in 1926, the last of his fourteen children. I never met my father's father, who in 1942, when my Dad was 12 and he was still a young man, was taken by Stalin's thugs, never to be seen, dead or alive, again. But from their lives were brought forth children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren, who have been called, each one of them, to serve God. My family is no different than any other, though the particulars for any family are not alike, and we all ask, as John does in Acts 13:25, of our missions, "what do you suppose I am?" Now John has clarity of mission, he asks this question rhetorically, acknowledging, "I am not he," and knowing his purpose and God's will for him. Yet, we all must ask at some time, if only of ourselves, "what do you suppose I am?"

His own parents wondered, too, who he was to be, and initially they were simply pleased that he and his Mother survived childbirth. That is how I read Luke 1:57-58, when the family rejoices that God has shown mercy to Elizabeth and her young son. Elizabeth was old when he was born and childbirth was risky in the ancient world, so the simple reality of both mother and child surviving childbirth is cause for joy. When he is named John, confounding family expectations and tradition, and eliciting a sense of God's presence in these events, the gathered family members wonder, "what then will this child become?"

We ought to wonder it about every child, and about ourselves. We have all been chosen by God - he knows us; we have all been given a purpose to fulfill -not that of Isaiah, of John, or of Jesus, but a purpose that God has seen fit to give only to us, that only we can fulfill; we all struggle at various times to make sense of that purpose, to bring it to fruition, but at times of darkest despair or struggle, we must keep in mind that God does not make mistakes. You are who you are because God knows that only you can carry out that mission that he has intended for you. "What do you suppose I am?" We all must ask it. "What then will this child become?" Only you can answer it with a life lived as God intended.

John W. Martens

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

The tête-à-tête between Paul Krugman and Nancy Pelosi in Manhattan was like a documentary about a once-popular rock band. (Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography)
Speaking in a deep blue stronghold, the Democratic leader of the House calls for “civility” and cautiously hopes that she will again wield the speaker’s gavel in January.
Brandon SanchezOctober 16, 2018
The lecture provoked no hostile reaction from the students who heard it. But a media firestorm erupted.
John J. ConleyOctober 16, 2018
Though the current synod appears to lack the sort of drama and high-stakes debates of the previous two, the role of conscience appears to be a common thread.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 16, 2018
When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the Olympic podium, their act drew widespread criticism. Now Colin Kaepernick is the face of Nike.
Michael McKinleyOctober 16, 2018