The Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist
My father’s name was Jean-Baptiste, obviously the French for John the Baptist. He did not know much about the Gospel – or he probably had forgotten much of it – but he used to call John the Baptist a great prophet and preacher. He would try to explain to us everything about John the Baptist but, thus doing, he would mix up names of several centuries of the history of the people of God. He also suspected that his ‘strange’ name might have had something to do with Baptism!
John the Baptist is one of those well-known biblical figures. He is one of those whose birth stories are told in details and involve the direct hand of God, often through the sending of an angel. In the Holy Scriptures, the mothers of Samson, Samuel and John were barren. God sent angels to announce the birth of those personalities who become involved in the transformation of the history of their people: Samson protecting them from the Philistines who were much stronger than the Israelites; Samuel by anointing King David who became the ideal king of the Jewish people; and John the Baptist who came to prepare the way of the Lord.
The story of the conception, the nativity and the infancy of John is told in the Gospel according to Luke. He was announced by the angel Gabriel as someone who “[would] be great in the eyes of the Lord […] he [would] turn many of the children of Israel toward the Lord their God and he would proceed in front of Him, in the spirit and power of Elijah, such that the hearts of the fathers [would] turn toward their children, and the disobedient toward the outlook of the righteous: a prepared people [would] be arranged for the Lord.” (Lk 1: 15-17). Later, when he was born, his father Zechariah prophesied in the words of the Benedictus prayed every morning by the Christian community in Lauds.
The Benedictus is a prayer not only of celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, but an expression of the hope of the people of Israel. It was a manifestation of God’s concern for His people. Some of the verses of the Benedictus that have always struck me and sounds sweet in my ears everytime I pray it in the morning are verses 76 – 78: ‘As for you, little child, you shall be called a prophet of God, the Most High. You shall go ahead of the Lord to prepare his ways before him, to make known to his people their salvation through forgiveness of all their sins, the loving-kindness of the heart of our God who visits us like the dawn from on high.’ It has always been for me one of the most comforting verses in the Bible and one of the most beautiful descriptions of God’s nature. Thus, contrary to the common description of John the Baptist as someone who scared everybody and pronounced severe judgment, from the beginning, from the time of his birth, his message was a message of comfort and hope. No wonder the Church chose this beautiful prayer to be said every day before we start our daily activities!
It is obvious that many people, both in and outside the Church, know about John Baptist and can say something about him. Muslims call him يحيى بن زكريا, read Yahya Ibn Zakariya (John, son of Zechariah). One reads in the Qur’an, Surah 19 (Maryam), verse (or ayah) 15: “So, Peace on him the day he was born, the day that he dies, and the day that he will be raised up to life (again)!” Muslims recognise the reverence of John to Jesus while both were still in their mothers’ wombs, as the first testimony of someone recognising Jesus as the word of God. It is reported that Ibn Arabi, a Muslim Sufi of the 12th and the 13th centuries, tells the story in a humorous way, attributing to Elizabeth complaints about her son bowing in her womb all the times she meets Mary! She might have suffered a lot for an old woman! Muslims claim to have the tomb of John the Baptist in Damascus in the Umayyad Mosque and a Franco-Algerian Muslim artist Rachid Koraïchi, who is very much involved in monotheistic religions’ dialogue, inspired by those relics, begun a project called Salomé in the French Centre Georges Pompidou, referring to the beheading of St John the Baptist after Salome’s beautiful dance, but would be more explained on the feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist. Mentioning these non-Christian sources does not intend to look down or to deny the Christian version of the birth and infancy of John the Baptist. It rather aims at showing how much respected he is in different religious traditions and could be a central figure in the interfaith dialogue.
In conclusion, we could say that John the Baptist, as often stressed especially by the Eastern Church, was a bridge between both Testaments. The Benedictus gives us the full meaning of the nativity of John and invites us to rejoice in this day, when our salvation is announced. It calls to going out with joyful and positive minds, to preach the Good news of the loving-kindness of God to people who might have often been told that God is waiting for them around the corner to punish them severely. It gives hope to those living in dark times. It invites us also to understand that we share much with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, who obviously are children of the same God.