19 December – Gospel

Commentary on Luke 1:5-25

There are close parallels in Luke’s Infancy Narrative between the birth of John the Baptist and that of Jesus. There are also significant differences. The First Reading, too, provides a prototype for today’s Gospel story as it describes the birth of Samson.

Today we read about the annunciation to Zechariah, about the birth of a son to his elderly wife, who is already past child-bearing age. Clearly it was a birth which, in normal circumstances, should not have happened. In a society where having children, and especially boys, was a wife’s primary duty, to be unable to produce children was a terrible shame – the ultimate failure. One had been chosen as wife for this purpose and this purpose alone. Love and affection would have had very little to do with it. And of course, it would have been presumed that the wife and not the husband had failed. At that time, a woman who could not be a mother was considered less than a person.

That is why widows in the Scripture are listed as among the most pitiable of people. Such women might still be quite young when they lost their husbands to war, an accident or disease, but as widows, they were not eligible for remarriage and so would not become mothers.

Right through the Scriptures – in both the Old and New Testaments – the births of significant people happen in circumstances which point strongly to some divine intervention. So, there are in the Bible a number of incidences where elderly women who had never borne a child are, through the intervention of God, blessed with a child, usually a son. Here, too, Elizabeth’s barrenness is seen less as a curse than as a preparation for something special.

As we see, today’s First Reading recounts one of these incidents – the birth of Samson. What is peculiar to all these stories is that the child to be born has a very special role given to him by God. In today’s Gospel, too, there is a sign of God’s intervention in the birth of John the Baptist. He is no ordinary child. He has been chosen for a very special purpose, to be the forerunner of Jesus, the last of the great prophets of the Hebrew Covenant.

The opening of Luke’s gospel is a kind of diptych, with parallel stories announcing the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus. We are not dealing here with literal history, although Luke posits the story in a genuinely historical context, “in the days of Herod, King of Judaea”. Luke writes in imitation of Old Testament birth accounts (like the one in the First Reading), mixing historical facts and legends. So we do not ask: Did all this happen exactly as described? Rather, we ask: What does it mean? And primarily it is part of the answer to another question: Who is Jesus Christ?

In today’s story we have the classical situation of the elderly wife who is childless. Then one day, the husband Zechariah, a member of the priestly caste, is spoken to by an angel while serving in the Temple. The birth of a son is announced and his destiny. He will not touch strong drink (like Samson before him) and he will be filled with the Spirit of God even before his birth. He will be the source for many to find their way back to God. Zechariah responds with some scepticism and is punished with loss of his ability to speak because of his unbelief. But, following this experience, Elizabeth conceives a child. The stage is then set for the next, and more important, Annunciation.

Today, let us reflect seriously on our own calling by God. Like John, each of us has been called to be a forerunner of Jesus, to prepare the way for Jesus to come into other people’s lives, especially those who have not yet had the experience of knowing him.

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