Saint Vincent Archabbey
Nativity of John the Baptist
Birth of John the Baptist, Classic
Luke 1: 57–66, 80
Luke introduces his gospel narrative of Jesus with the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist. In prior verses related to our passage, we learn that a priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have no children, both being well advanced in years. While Zechariah is performing his priestly duty in the sanctuary of the temple, an angel appears and says to him that Elizabeth will bear a son who was to be called John. But because Zechariah did not believe, and questioned the angel, he became unable to speak. After Elizabeth did give birth to a son, Zechariah wrote on a tablet, "John is his name." Immediately his tongue was freed and he spoke, blessing God. The child (whose name means "Yahweh has shown favor") grew and became strong in spirit, for he was to become a prophet of the Most High.
The unbreakable bond between the Jewish people and the people of the new covenant in God's plan of salvation is clearly evident in today's feast. It is from the Jewish people that John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus are born so that the tender mercy of God will visit all people. It is from the Jewish people that the church receives the revelation of the most fundamental truths of faith. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, the church continues to draw "sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles."
The most fundamental truth from which we draw sustenance is that God is present in human history as one who extends to us the favor of merciful love. We also learn from the Jewish people that the mystery of divine presence is beyond comprehension.
The "I AM" of the divine name is a name beyond names (Exodus 3: 14 and John 8: 58). A child born of aged Abraham and Sarah or a bush that burns but is not consumed before Moses signals a presence beyond human understanding and control.
It is precisely because the mystery of the divine presence is beyond comprehension that the decision to trust or not to trust is inevitable for every one of us. Zechariah, upon hearing the outlandish words of the Lord's angel, did not trust and became mute, unable to speak a word (Luke 1: 20). Luke immediately afterward tells us that the Virgin Mary, too, was not able to understand the promise of the Lord's angel. However, her response "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" (Luke 1: 34) is asked out of trust, not out of doubt.
The mystery even of human friendship can deal with a thousand difficulties and questions that are asked out of trust, but is deeply wounded by even one question asked out of doubt.
To receive the gift of recognizing the divine presence through faith calls forth a wholehearted response. The essence of that response is not only to trust, but also to bless God with praise and gratitude. When Zechariah wrote on the tablet "John is his name" immediately his mouth was opened and he spoke a blessing "because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death's shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace" (Luke 1: 68–79). Mary's canticle of praise and gratitude in response to the favor of divine presence is one of the most beautiful blessings of the entire biblical tradition (Luke 1: 46–55).
Today's feast celebrating the birth of John the Baptist reminds us to pray again for the faith to recognize the divine presence in our lives, to trust in God's tender mercy with an undivided heart, and to bless God always and everywhere with a glad and grateful heart. Further, in the difficult circumstances that life brings to us all, only as a grateful expression of trust that God's will is to love us can we with confidence pray, "Thy will be done."
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.The Birth of John the Baptist,
The Church celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist this Sunday, allowing the usual Sunday readings and prayers to give way to this saint not so much on his own account—as impressive a figure as he was—but rather because of his close connection with the life and ministry of Christ. John was the forerunner after all, the one who would go before the Lord to command his people: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths" (Mark 1:3; cf. Isa 40:3).
As we mark the feast of Saint John the Baptist we marvel over how unlikely his very existence was: he was born of parents who were thought to be unable to have a child—a source a great suffering for many couples now as in the time of our Lord. John's birth of course was announced in a dramatic way, with an angel appearing to his father Zechariah in the Temple and telling him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John" (Luke 1:13).
The angel further told Zechariah that not only would their son bring joy and gladness to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but in fact "many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord" (Luke 1:13-15a).
The angel thus revealed that John had a special task to perform in his life, and later we come to know that this task was to prepare the way for the messiah. At the same time however it is important that we carefully note the angel's words "he will be great in the sight of the Lord." What we see here is that John's grandeur—the reason we honor him at mass this day—lies not in his worldly accomplishments or in the recognition that he received from power brokers and members of polite society. On the contrary, it was the power brokers and polite society of John's day that saw to his beheading.
Rather, John's grandeur and holiness lay in the fact that he was "great in the sight of the Lord;" that is, his innate human dignity came from the fact that he was made in the image and likeness of the Lord, and called by the Lord, and loved by the Lord.
In the sight of other people we are held sometimes in esteem, sometimes in contempt, but God sees through that pettiness and loves us—great or humble, rich or poor, famous or obscure, simply as we are, precious in his eyes if scorned in the eyes of men.
Perhaps we can take a lesson from this as to the value of human life: even an infant destined for worldly insignificance is "great in the sight of the Lord" and deserves the same welcome into life that John the Baptist received from his parents. We see a similar recognition of the preciousness of all life in God's eyes, especially the lives of the unborn who cannot yet speak in their own defense, in the first reading today from the prophet Jeremiah: "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), and in today's responsorial Psalm: "For you are my hope, O Lord; my trust, O Lord, from my youth. On you I depend from birth; from my mother's womb you are my strength" (Ps 71:5-6).
Mindful of John the Baptist and the "greatness" he held in the eyes of the Lord even before his birth, let us pray that all God's children may be welcomed into life with love, for all are truly "great in the sight of the Lord."
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.