The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24th
It may be helpful to read Luke: 1, 15-18, 1-20, 1-34, in order to understand how the story develops before arriving at today’s reading.
Luke: 1-57-66, 80
When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.” But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name. ”So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with Him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.
- Have you ever received good news that was so good you had trouble believing it? Tell the Story.
- Do you think it is acceptable to question God? Why or why not?
- In what specific ways have you, or do you hear God’s call? How do you respond in trust?
- As a faith community of men, how would you say we are doing at focusing outside ourselves, “preparing paths” for those who sit in darkness? Is this our mission as church?
Luke 1: 57-66, 80
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
Our reading today is the middle of the story of John the Baptist’s birth. The story begins earlier in the first chapter of Luke when the angel Gabriel announces the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah, a priest. Zechariah is married to Elizabeth, who is barren and well advanced in years. While Zechariah is in the sanctuary burning incense, the angel Gabriel appears by the altar and tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a child whom he is to name John. The angel says that John “will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:15- 17).
Zechariah asks the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Zechariah has asked for a sign. The sign that Zechariah is given is that he will be unable to talk until the words spoken by the angel are fulfilled.
This sign, plus the angel’s words, “But now you will be speech- less and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time” (Luke 1:20), strike many people as harsh. This is especially true when this passage is compared to the announcement of Jesus’ birth, in which Mary also questions the angel’s words and asks, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). Scripture scholars suggest that while both Zechariah and Mary experienced fear and awe, Zechariah’s response reflected lack of belief while Mary’s was simply a request for more information. In any case, Zechariah does not feel punished. As we will see, when he can speak Zechariah does not feel punished. As we will see, when ne can speak again the first words out of his mouth are to bless God.
After the story of the annunciation to Zechariah, Luke interrupts the story of John the Baptist’s birth to tell us about the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Mary and Mary’s visit to her cousin and John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth. It is after these accounts that today’s Gospel begins.
The time has now arrived for Elizabeth to have her child. Because Zechariah and Elizabeth are faithful Jews, they have their son circumcised on the eighth day, just as the law prescribes (Lev 12:4). The relatives want to name this only son after his father, Zechariah. Elizabeth insists that the child be named John. She is, of course, obeying the instructions that the angel gave her husband. The relatives argue with her and finally turn to Zechariah to settle the dispute. Zechariah “asked for a table and wrote, ‘John is his name.’ ” With this, the angel’s words are fulfilled: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John” (Luke 1:13). Zechariah regains his ability to speak. Luke tells us, “Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.
Luke then tells us that all the relatives and neighbors were amazed and talked about these mighty signs throughout the hill country of Judea. “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’ For surely the hand of the Lord was with 5 today’s Lectionary reading, in which Zechariah both blesses the Lord and explains the significance of his son’s birth.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people. He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant, even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old… And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of our God (Luke 1:68-70, 76-78a)
In all four Gospels John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus’ public ministry. However, only in Luke do we read the infancy narrative of John’s birth. In fact, Luke has John announce the presence of his savior while he is still in the womb. This happens when the pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth and Elizabeth says, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:43-44). When John reaches adulthood his will be the voice of one crying in the desert preparing the way of the Lord.
God Is Gracious
It’s good that pregnancy lasts nine months. Parents need time to ready their hearts, minds and souls to embrace the precious new life growing within.
My Uncle Romeo and Aunt Corinne had no such luxury. After they spent six years yearning for a child, a young birth mom chose them as adoptive parents. In a blink of an eye, everything changed. They felt overwhelmed, amazed and giddy. They welcomed Melanie with open, trembling arms, with an immense shiver of gratitude. When John the Baptist was born to the formerly barren Elizabeth and Zechariah, a shiver of gratitude shot through our collective Judeo-Christian family. John’s very conception was miraculous. His coming was heralded by an angel, his name given by God; people were already asking what kind of child he would be.
What does John have to teach us? First off: Nothing is impossible for God. What is the most barren within us can foster the greatest life. If Elizabeth and Zechariah could bear a son in their old age, what is possible for each of us?What does John have to teach us? First off: Nothing is impossible for God. What is the most barren within us can foster the greatest life. If Elizabeth and Zechariah could bear a son in their old age, what is possible for each of us?
We all have barren patches in our lives, places seemingly abandoned and dry as dust. We expect little from these places — yet could it be that God does his greatest work here?
John also teaches us: Names help to establish our identities. They have always been particularly important for firstborn sons; in many traditions, a firstborn son is named after his father. Such was not the case with John. As those sur- rounding Zechariah and Elizabeth were quick to point out, no one in the family was named John. What was wrong with the most obvious choice? “Zechariah” means “the one whom God remembers.” What a fine name, especially for a boy who could follow in his father’s footsteps and become a priest!
Yet God knew this boy was destined to break with family tradition. He needed a new name. His father was a priest; he was a prophet. His father worshiped Yahweh; his son recognized the Messiah. John broke open his father’s faith, allowing all that was foretold to be revealed. John was a bridge between the Testaments. John means “God is gracious.” God is indeed gracious when he makes our barren places fruitful. God supported John as he grew in wisdom and maturity; God yearns to work similar miracles within us. Are we willing to receive his gift?
Think for a moment of those places you have left uncultivated in your own life. Perhaps you don’t trust your mental capacities or your ability to love. Do you have the courage to let God cultivate your barren place? Think of what life could erupt from this place. This new life could send a shiver of gratitude through you and all you know.
Discerning our own unique vocation is such a difficult task — and yet it is an essential one if we are to become the people God envisions we can be. Sometimes, like John, we need to have the courage to break with family tradition and forge a new path. Even when our path fits within family tradition, it is important that we flavor our life’s work with all the unique gifts we have been given.
There is only one John the Baptist. And there is only one you. While our life’s work will probably not redefine the course of history, it will define us and help shape all those around us. Each of us has a destiny that only we can fulfill. Are we ready for the challenge?
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc