He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed (Gospel)
In Old Testament times, the name of a person was very sacred and carried something of the person’s destiny within it. To call someone by name was to summarize this person’s role in life. So, when it came time to name the child born to Elizabeth and Zechariah, his father insisted that his name would be JOHN, a name meaning “God is gracious”. John’s life was to be dedicated to this fact: God in his mercy has set us free from all evil to worship and to serve him in all his ways.
One of John’s greatest quotes is one that I used at the beginning of my last pastorate: “’he must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) My community never got it. They still thought they were in charge. In all things we want Jesus to increase and our own wills, desires, and attachments, to decrease. In all that we are and do, in family, parish and country – may the Lord increase! Our life is not about ourselves, but about the God who breathed life into us.
In our common lives together as Americans, in our civil society, in our politics – may the Lord increase! In the time of Jesus, the king decreased the space for the things of God; he did not want to hear the voice of truth, he did not want to let preachers the freedom to preach. St. John the Baptist refused to listen to the king. He let the king know where his choices in life were wrong. For his fidelity to God, John was imprisoned and beheaded.
The Lord Jesus tells us that John the Baptist is the greatest of all born of woman. Perhaps his greatest virtue was fortitude. He was fearless in his preaching. He was martyred for speaking the truth in defense of faith and in defense of freedom to live by the law of God.
The bishops of the United States have declared these two weeks leading to the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence should be a time of prayer and campaign for teaching and giving witness to true religious liberty. Beginning this past Thursday with the Feast of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More who like John the Baptist were beheaded by a king who desired them not to speak the truth about the Church and the sacred bond of marriage, the bishops ask us to look to these saints in history. During the coming week we will be celebrating the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, who likewise were martyred by the Roman emperor for their preaching Jesus Christ.
As we prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, we recognize that our first liberty as Americans is religious freedom. It is the first freedom enumerated in the First Amendment. It is the foundation of all our freedoms, for if Americans are not free in their consciences, in their religious faith, in their corporal works of mercy, then all our freedoms are fragile. When our government tells us to do what God command us not to do, our freedom is imperiled. In such a case we should follow the example of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. by refusing to obey an unjust law.
Our Bishops have identified several attacks on religious liberty. The mandate to provide health insurance for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, is a national assault on religious liberty without precedent in our history. There are also other measures that prohibit spiritual and charitable assistance to undocumented immigrants. When the government tells us that we must do what our faith forbids us to do or that we cannot do what our faith calls us to do – then we must have the courage of John the Baptist to refuse those unjust orders. It is a serious question that we face: shall the government increase and Jesus decrease?
The fortnight of prayer reminds us that our liberty is not something that we have invented for ourselves, and much less a grant from our government. It is God’s gift. We have been set free by Christ Jesus and freedom is our way of life. The genius of our forefathers in this nation is that they recognized this fact. This is a day when the true Christian and American spirit join force to insist upon that recognition. We insist as John insisted before King Herod, we insist today as Peter and Paul insisted before King the Emperor Nero; we insist today as Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More insisted before King Henry VIII.
Today we call upon the intercession of John the Baptist, for all branches and levels of government, that our religious liberties be kept intact. More urgent however, we pray that all Christians may have the fortitude to stand up for our faith and our freedom. For this purpose, we may have to suffer and to sacrifice. Perhaps we may decrease. But through it all the only thing that matters is that Jesus increase.
If we shy away from who Christ is, then we lose the meaning of the Red, White and Blue. If we shy away from our American vesture, then we lose the meaning of Christ and the freedom he came to give us. On this fortnight that leads to the Fourth of July let us renew our fidelity to preparing the way for the Lord: He must increase, we must decrease.
O God our Creator, Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit, We ask you to bless us Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father, We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty
you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world,
bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel
to every corner of society.
in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty.
Give us the strength of mind and heart
to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened;
give us courage in making our voices heard
on behalf of the rights of your Church
and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be "one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
O God our Creator,
Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit,
We ask you to bless us
Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
We ask this through Christ our Lord.