The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

Commentary on Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66,80

He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. (John 1:7)

John the Baptist played a unique role in the history of God’s people. He acted as the bridge between the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. He basically belongs to the former, but was present at the beginnings of the latter. At the same time, he died before Jesus had completed his work, and before the Church came into existence.

Jesus praised his greatness, but also said that even the least in the Kingdom was greater than he. Although he knew and proclaimed Jesus as the one for whom all were waiting, and the thongs of whose sandals he was not worthy to loose, he never saw Jesus as his Risen Lord, a privilege granted to the very least of the baptised.

His primary title is Precursor. His mission was to go ahead of the Messiah and proclaim his coming. As he said modestly himself, Jesus must increase while he himself must decrease. The success of his mission would eventually make him redundant. And that is still the role of the missionary today – to plant the church and then withdraw, leaving it in the hands of the new local community.

Many parallels
Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. In Luke’s Gospel, there are many parallels between the birth of John and that of Jesus. Both births were announced in advance: in John’s case to his father Zechariah and in Jesus’ case to his mother Mary.

The birth of John was a special blessing to his parents, who were already advanced in age, and particularly to Elizabeth. So when the birth took place, it was a special occasion of rejoicing among relatives and neighbours. When they:

…heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her…they rejoiced with her.

In this time, everyone knew what a shame it was for a woman not to give a child, especially a son, to her husband.

In accordance with custom, the child was circumcised on the eighth day after birth. This ritual showed that the child belonged to God’s own people. It was also the day on which the child was officially named. Also in keeping with their culture’s traditions, it was expected that the child would be called Zechariah after his father. But Elizabeth interjected to say that he should be called John. This came as a surprise as there was no one of that name in the family.

The father was then consulted. Because he had doubted the angel’s words at the announcement of his son’s conception, Zechariah’s ability to speak had been taken from him. He was possibly also deaf, because the people communicated with him by signs. He replied by writing on a tablet:

His name is John.

This was the name the angel said should be given to the new-born child. This act of obedience on the part of Zechariah resulted in his speech coming back and his glorifying God, and:

Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.

The whole event was clearly understood as a direct intervention of God.

And people began to wonder about the child in front of them. They asked:

What then will this child become?

All the circumstances of his birth indicated that he was no ordinary child and that God had a special mission for him.

In the desert
In words similar to those used of Jesus, we are told that the boy grew up and matured. Probably his elderly parents died while he was young and he went to live in the Desert of Judea, which lies between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. And it was there, along the banks of the River Jordan, that he began his public preaching. He would have been about 30 years of age, the same age as his cousin, Jesus.

His calling to serve the Lord is expressed in the passage from Isaiah in the First Reading:

The Lord called me before I was born;
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

His unexpected birth was revealed to his father and his name given to him.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword…he made me a polished arrow…

John was an effective prophet and herald. The reading also implies the suffering and frustrations that were part of John’s life. In the end he was thrown into prison and, on the whim of Herod’s illegitimate wife, executed. But his life was not in vain. He became, in the words of the reading:

…light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

John was the last and in some ways the greatest of the Hebrew Testament prophets. As the preface for today’s Mass says he was chosen:

…from all the prophets to show the world its redeemer, the Lamb of sacrifice.

It was he, who in John’s Gospel, points out Jesus to his disciples as the “Lamb of God”.

Apart from preaching a message of repentance and conversion to the large number of people who came to hear him, he:

…baptised Christ, the giver of baptism, in waters made holy by the one who was baptised.

He is presented as a man of total honesty and integrity. Perhaps it was this which attracted so many to come and hear him. And because of this, he ultimately lost his life when he denounced King Herod, who had married his brother’s wife. He was:

…found worthy of a martyr’s death, his last and greatest act of witness to your Son.

A model for all of us
John the Baptist’s life has a special meaning for all of us. We are, through our baptism, also called to be precursors of the Lord. Our baptism imposes on us an obligation to share our faith and to give witness to the Way of Jesus, both in word and action. There is no other way by which the average person can come to know and experience the love of Christ.

It is well put by Paul, writing to the church at Rome a long time ago:

…everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom 10:13-16)

In that sense, we are all called to be ‘preachers’. Our lives individually and collectively are meant to send out a message and an invitation – an invitation to come and join us and share our experience of faith, love and fellowship.

If we are honest, we know that we do not do that nearly enough and, in fact, often give an opposite message altogether. As the philosopher-unbeliever Nietzsche said:

“If they want me to be Christian they will have to look as if they are saved.”

The signals we send out as individuals, as families, as parish, are really the only way that people who are searching for meaning in their lives may be led to find that meaning in the Gospel. Let us ask John the Baptist today to help us by the way we live our lives to clear a path which will draw people closer to knowing and experiencing Christ.

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