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The Nativity of John the Baptist

Saturday, June 23, 2007
Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6; Ps 138:1-3, 13-15 R)v. 14; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66,80

Today’s feast gives us an unusual perspective into the intersecting point between the Old and New Testaments. We might begin by remarking how unusual it is to celebrate the birthday of a saint rather than, much more typically, remembering them on the anniversary of their death. Also, it would seem strange to remember a saint in the liturgy by hearing about the lives and struggles of their parents. A great deal hinges for us on understanding properly the role of Zechariah in today’s Gospel. He is a priest of the line of Abijah and shares a name with a prophet of the kingdom of Judah. In quite significant ways he stands for the religion of the Old Testament: he and his wife Elizabeth ‘were worthy in the sight of God, and scrupulously observed all the commandments and observances of the law’ (Lk 1:6). But there is something missing, they are a childless couple: infertility has accompanied their apparent faithfulness, and in their advanced age there seems no hope for offspring.

The fruitlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth stands for the aridity of the religion of Israel, and for its thirst for Jesus, the one whom John the Baptist will herald. This thirst, however, is unacknowledged. The loss of hope in the future has hardened Zechariah’s heart and when he hears joyous but unexpected news from the angel Gabriel, he is slow to believe. Like his religious tradition, he is punished for his hesitation and lack of self knowledge by his speech being taken from him.

Hope and the power of proclamation are returned to Zechariah when he is able to name his son with a name that has been previously unknown in his family. A place in the tradition is found for the one who prophesies the fulfilment of the religion of Israel. Zechariah acknowledges his destiny and that of his family line and the way is opened for new life for his entire people.

The point is further developed in the piece from Isaiah that we have for today’s first reading. It is not enough for religion to remain static, to shore up its ruins against fear of being overwhelmed by the happenings of life. True service of God does not require that we consolidate, rather it is the case that we are enjoined to pass on what we have been given. The Church is asked by the Lord to become ‘the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth’ (Is 49:6).

The birth of the prophet of Christ is particularly symbolic for Christians for it is the same nativity that we try to engender in our own spirits. Humanity has been raised to God in Christ, yet very often we are as closed to that reality as Israel was to the advent of the Lord. We experience particular moments in our lives when we are challenged to broaden our vision, to leave safe waters, just as Zechariah was. Sadly, of our own powers, we often judge wrongly in our response and lose the power to tailor language to reality, in a way resembling Zechariah dumb struck. Our comfort is that, in prayer, it is the spirit who speaks through us, and just as John’s father was brought to wisdom by God through a slow and exacting process, we know that the same work is being done in our hearts. The assent of Zechariah to the new name, John, finds an echo in our assent to the great name that John was the first to preach and which always challenges us to deeper integrity and wisdom.


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