Even as the world's attention this past week has been focused on our southern border and on our government’s deliberately cruel and aggressive policies against families and children, with all that in the background, the Church's calendar today invites us to focus on the birth of a baby – something of a rarity in the Church’s calendar, which typically celebrates saints on the day of their death. Only Jesus, Mary his mother, and Saint John the Baptist, whom the Gospel describes as filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb – only those three - have their birthdays acknowledged in the Church’s calendar.
Today’s celebration transports us in spirit into an Old Testament atmosphere of pious, devout senior citizens in sterile marriages, whose youth is symbolically restored by the great gift of fertility. In the world of the Bible, few fates could be worse than not having any children. Quite unlike the me and my generation mainly mentality so emblematic of our own time, fertility and the future it made possible were seen as the greatest of gifts, a great grace, a true blessing. This blessing was now granted to Zechariah and Elizabeth. But, again quite unlike our modern mentality, this blessing was not granted to Zechariah and Elizabeth simply for themselves. Hence, the Gospel recounts a whole series of special events surrounding, first, the conception, and, then, the birth, circumcision, and naming of their son. These circumstances served Zechariah and Elizabeth and their family and friends as visible signs, so to speak, of their son’s special status and mission, indicating the purpose of this miraculous event in God’s great plan for the whole human race.
According to the account in Luke’s Gospel, when Zechariah and Elizabeth’s family and friends heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward Zechariah and Elizabeth, they naturally rejoiced with them. At first, however, they still had their own pre-conceived understanding of what they were celebrating, as reflected, for example, in the way they thought the newborn should be named. But they – and, through them, we – must be made to see that this miracle birth was about so much more than the Lord’s mercy to one couple, to one family, Hence, the physical miracle of John’s birth was augmented by even further signs dramatically highlighting his fuller significance.
In the world of the Bible, naming someone was an act of authority. In the case of a newborn, it signified the father’s recognition of his child. But, as the angel had foretold to Zechariah, many would rejoice at this boy’s birth. He would belong not just to his parents but to the special mission God had made him for. Hence, his name was chosen by God himself and announced by an angel. Zechariah and Elizabeth and their family and friends recognized in this a sign that God really was still present and active in the world. So, unable to keep the good news to themselves, they immediately anticipated John’s own special mission by spreading the word throughout the hill country of Judea.
Today’s feast focuses on John’s birth. The familiar details of his preaching and baptizing we will hear about again, as we do every year, in Advent. John’s actual public career was quite brief – quickly cut short by his arrest and eventual execution. His martyrdom is recalled in the Church’s calendar in August, but it seems appropriate today to recall, that martyrdom as the Preface of the Mass does, to recall his imprisonment and execution by King Herod Antipas. The Gospel account suggests that Herod may have actually admired John and that Herod liked to listen to him, but that he was very much perplexed by John’s challenge to his misuse of political power (Mark 6). Just as John had pointed ahead to Jesus in life, his death also pointed ahead to Jesus’ own death at the hands of Roman political authority – and beyond that to the many martyrs in every age, including our own, whose heroic witness would put them at odds with unjust and immoral aggressive political power.
John’s birth, which we celebrate with such solemnity today, continued the process that began with the promise God long ago made to Abraham, then renewed over and over to his descendants, and finally fulfilled in Jesus, whose own birth we will celebrate exactly six months from now. Today heralds the hope that the dry desert summer will eventually yield to the autumn rains and the life-giving wetness of winter – nature’s way, perhaps, of symbolizing the effect of the coming of Christ whose birth into our world of injustice and oppression it was John’s mission – and is now our mission – to announce to the world.
Homily for the Nativity of Saint John the baptist, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 24, 2018.