HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE NATIVITY OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
Readings: Is. 49:1-6/Acts 13:22-26
Psalm: 139:1-3, 13-15
Gospel: Lk. 1:57-66, 80
The Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is considered in the Church as a Solemnity. This is the highest level of designation of celebration in the Church, followed by a Feast, Memorial, Seasonal Weekday and Ordinary Weekday. What that means is that whenever this day falls on a Sunday during Ordinary Time, the Solemnity takes precedence over the regularly Sunday Mass. So, instead of hearing proclaimed today Jesus calming the waters (Mk. 4:31-35), we hear proclaimed the birth of John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. While we look forward to hear the Life of Christ proclaimed, it is the birth of his cousin who garners the Church’s attention today. So we honor his birth today with as much joy as we do the one who will come after.
In order for us to understand what this day means in the life of the Church (and in all of Christianity), we need to step back from this passage and get some background to this story. In the First Chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, Zechariah, a priest in the order of Adjibah, was in the Sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense.
While he was in there, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. He proclaimed to Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, will bear him a son and will be named John. Zechariah seemed puzzled. He had prayed to God for years for a child. But since he and Elizabeth were getting on in years, he thought their time of being parents were over. He expressed his doubts to Gabriel. When he did, Gabriel made him mute until the child was presented in the Temple. When the crowd who was praying outside saw Zechariah come out of the Sanctuary, they realized that something had happened, but they did not know what it was because Zechariah could not speak. And as it so happened, Elizabeth did become pregnant, and did give birth to a son. And during this entire time, Zechariah still could not speak.
So now we come to the moment we heard proclaimed today. Normally, when the time would come to name a child, a couple usually will take a name that is connected to the family, like an ancestor on either side of the family. It was the same thing during this time in history. All the people who came to the ceremony were surprised that when the time came to name him, the child’s name was going to be John and not an ancestor. They went to Zechariah and ask him. He asked for a tablet and wrote on it the words “His name is John.” Immediately Zechariah regained his voice, stunning the crowd. They began to ask themselves what power restored his voice and, more importantly, what will this child become? This witness of faith that John’s parents had shown would serve him well in his ministry as the one will cry out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
When a child is given a name, it can tell a lot about what is going on in the lives of the parents. Think about it! When parents-to-be find out they are having a baby, they will usually go through many sources to find the right name. Some will look at family history (i.e., grandparents, aunts, uncles, ancestors) while others will look at names that reflect a particular region or culture (i.e., Billy Bob or Mary Sue or Mary Catherine or John Francis).
Others will take the name of a certain hero (how many boys you know are named Brady or Brett because of Football) while still others will choose a name because it was “trendy” (how many Brittney’s do you know?). Having to choose a name is very important to parents and can affect the child for the rest of their lives (I am still trying to figure out why Frank Zappa would name their kids Dweezil, Moon Unit and Motorhead).
When Gabriel told Zechariah that his son will be called John, it took the power to name the child from him and Elizabeth. Yet if we look further, the name John falls in line with the family, even though none of their families had that name. The name Zechariah means “the Lord has remembered.” The name Elizabeth means “God is an oath.” The name John means “God has been gracious.” For God to name him John was not so much going away from his family tradition, it was keeping a promise God had given this family for the moment of their births. If we put the three names together, we can come up with the phrase “The Lord has remembered his oath. He has been gracious to his people.” It is quite the phrase for the family of the one who will charge the people to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
This John whom we honor today has been given two titles in history: One from the East and one from the West. The West title is “The Baptist.” It is the one we are most familiar with and portrays his adult ministry to baptize his followers for the forgiveness of their sins. In the East, John is given the title “The Forerunner.” It was to reflect the image of John we have today: the one born on earth to declare to the world the arrival of the Messiah. He was conceived six months before Gabriel appeared to Mary. When Mary arrived to visit Elizabeth, it was John who leapt in his mother’s womb in excitement that the Messiah had arrived. And Elizabeth, being a child of the priestly class, immediately understood this sensation as more than just the child kicking or early contractions. When Zechariah regained his voice, he understood what the Angel Gabriel meant when he announced John’s birth.
Then he proclaimed the prayer we call the Benedictus. “Bless be the Lord, the God of Israel who has come to his people and set them free…” This prayer is said every day in the Morning Office, while the prayer said at the Evening Office is Mary’s “Magnificat”. The prayer is two-fold: the proclamation that God kept his promise of a Messiah and that it is in John that the pronouncement will be made. While we focus on John “The Baptist” here in the West, it is John “The Forerunner” that allows the world to be ready for the Messiah.
How does this Feast, this Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Forerunner/Baptist affect us today? John’s Nativity is the ultimate witness to the blessings waiting for us when we see God. He was born by human means, yet his actions expressed the divine. His lineage marked him to be great amongst the people, yet God spoke to him to live in the desert in abstract poverty. He would have been one to offer incense in the sanctuary like his father for the sake of the Jews, yet he went to the river to take the sins of the people as a true offering to God.
While we think of the Birth of Christ when we hear the word “Nativity,” it is the Nativity of John, Forerunner and Baptist, who bring us toward Christ so that, in six months’ time, we, too, can be a Forerunner like John when we can proclaim “O Come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant to Israel. Come and behold him born the King of Angels. O come let us adore him, Christ, the Lord.”
MAY GOD BLESS YOU AND ALL THAT YOU DO THIS WEEK