During the Second World War, when the Nazi armies were in almost every country of Europe, King Christian of Denmark stubbornly resisted the Nazis. His country was quite small compared to powerful Germany, and the king knew he could not win on the battlefield, but he put up a valiant moral struggle.
One day he observed a Nazi flag flying above one of his public buildings. He reminded the German commander that this was contrary to the treaty between the two nations and said, “The flag must be removed before twelve o’clock. Otherwise, I will send a soldier to remove it. At five minutes before noon, the flag was still flying, and the king announced he was sending a soldier to take it down. “The soldier will be shot,” the Nazi officer said. Then King Christian calmly said, “I think I should tell you that I will be that soldier.”
This is clearly a story about courage. And I tell this story as we remember the birth of St John the Baptist. For John the Baptist to be the last prophet to herald the coming of Christ did indeed take courage. To endure the suffering of being imprisoned and unjustly executed for what he believed, took great courage. To be open to the new message of Jesus Christ, and to believe that this was the proclamation from the Son of God, took courage. To realize that his role was to prepare the way for someone greater than him, took courage. And St. John the Baptist was able to “hang in there” and stay faithful to Christ. John the Baptist trusted in God’s plan even though he didn’t fully understand where it would lead.
And when we look at the others who were part of the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist: Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Mary, too, we see that they had courage and faith as well to accept their role in God’s mysterious plan. None of these people could have predicted that God would have chosen them and used them in the way that he did to bring about our salvation. Yet, they remained faithful to the Lord, even though periods of doubt and confusion. Let me share with you another story.
One day Agnes was babysitting her grandson. She was a woman of very deep faith and never missed an opportunity to get a little Catechesis in about her faith. On this particular day, Agnes was encouraging her grandson to say his prayers. She said to him, “I believe in a God who is hidden, yet, at the same time, very active in my life.”
“What does that mean?” asked the grandson. “Well, things may look terrible and then sometimes in an instant, or sometimes gradually, after you pray a lot, things change for the better.” She continued, “I remember once being sick and in the hospital. There was a woman in the bed next to me. We would talk. And I told her about the power God gives us in prayer. She left the hospital before I did, but about five years later, when I was in church, there she was with her husband and three teenage children. She and her family had moved to Chicago, but they were back home visiting old neighbors and were staying in a motel nearby the church. She and her family were church-going people now.
And there she was right after Mass saying to me, ‘I don’t think you will remember me, but I remember you, and I want to thank you. You helped change my life. I always think of you as God’s messenger. After I left you at the hospital, I took what you said to heart and I began to pray and my life gradually took a turn for the better. I pray every day and I say one for you.’”
Agnes then said to her grandson, “You see, God seems hidden, but God is very active in people’s lives, and what we see sometimes as terrible (as I thought things were when I was sick in the hospital that time) the hidden God sees as an opportunity to help one of his own return to Him. God knows what he is about!”
St. Ignatius once said, “There are very few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into God’s hands and let themselves be formed by his grace.” St. John the Baptist did this, and so did Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary, the Mother of Jesus—and even Agnes. These people had the courage to stay true to themselves, to persevere in times of difficulty, and to allow the Lord to form them by his grace. We pray for that same courage and grace.