In April of 1947, (the then) Princess Elizabeth made a radio broadcast on the occasion of her twenty-first birthday. She was abroad at the time, visiting South Africa with her parents and sister. Her birthday address ended with this pledge, spoken in an incredibly young voice, a tremulous sound still to be heard on the world-wide web:
There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors — a noble motto, “I serve”. Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs to the Throne when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood. I cannot do quite as they did.
But through the inventions of science I can do what was not possible for any of them. I can make my solemn act of dedication with a whole Empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple.
I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.
But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.
Now in the sixtieth year of her reign, no one in Britain, not even the staunchest of those who would call for a republic, could possibly suggest that she has not kept faith with her people and fulfilled the promise of her youth. In an age when fewer folk feel inclined to make life-long promises of any sort, that’s worth noting and celebrating, even in distant America.
This summer, the Solemnity of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist falls on a Sunday, and so it eclipses the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time. With our American Bishops calling for a Fortnight of Freedom, it would be a short, and obvious, move to concentrate upon Saint John as one who gave all in defense of conscience, but we have a separate feast, on August 29th, for the martyrdom of the Baptist. This one celebrates his nativity. What’s to be made of that, this year, as we reflect upon the future of our freedoms?
Start with the obvious. Every birth is a joyful time of promise, one in which we celebrate the renewal of life and the endless possibilities lying before the newborn. In this feast another hue is added: the notion that some lives, even in their origins, are taken-up as instruments of God’s providence. The Baptist didn’t just happen to become a prophet and reformer. Believers see in his life and ministry the active solicitude of God for his people. John’s life, his destiny, were wondrously and mysteriously ordained by God. “Before birth the LORD called me, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name” (Is 49:1) . Whatever decisions the Baptist made, however lone and deeply personal they may have seemed at the time, we see them as responses to the grace and initiative of God in human history. God chose John before he chose God.
These days, while some seek the right to marry, many others forego matrimonial promises entirely, or delay them until as much uncertainly as possible can be drained from them. And the Church is certainly not besieged by those wanting to promise life-long vows of religious life and ministry. One could fill volumes with sociological and theological speculation about the causes of our collective fear of commitment, but, however insightful those theories may be, they only spell out — they do not erase — a profound crisis of faith that besets these days, which we have been given to live upon earth.
Whatever the reasons, it is very difficult for us to believe that God has called us into being, having lovingly known and ordained our destinies before the mountains were put in place or the stars summoned. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jer 1: 5). Even unbelievers find themselves adrift in a something of a crisis of faith. Many have great difficulty believing that humanity’s best days are yet to come.
Births simply happen. Baptisms, marriages, ordinations, religious vows, and coronations are quite conscious dedications of the self to a future that, all the while unknown, is nevertheless embraced as the gift of an all gracious God. “Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of [your] faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1: 8-9).
In that regard, as the Second Vatican Council’s document on religious liberty makes clear, we must be free to respond to God, to give ourselves to God, according to the dictates of conscience. “[T]he exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind” (Dignitatus Humanae § 3).
The obtuse might believe that Elizabeth simple followed a well laid out path, forgetting the example of her own uncle, Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne so that he could love according to his lights. A feast like the Nativity of the Baptist demands that we read history itself as a testament to the providence of God.
That’s the problem with history. We record it without the reverence of reflection. Neither Queen Elizabeth nor Saint John happened through historical necessity. That history knows of both is not chance occurrence, nor the mere result of choice. Each made a personal response to God and kept a promise.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein