Scripture Speaks: Nativity of John the Baptist

As we continue our months-long trek through Ordinary Time, the Church today reminds us of the birth of John the Baptist.  Why?

Gospel (Read Lk 1:57-66, 80)

Liturgically, we have a very long time before we begin thinking again about the birth of Jesus into human history in the Incarnation.  So, why do we find ourselves celebrating the birth of St. John the Baptist today?  We usually associate his birth with that of his cousin, Jesus, six months later.  Is now the time for an infancy narrative?

The first answer to this question is the simplest one.  Christianity is a religion that began in actual history.  In December, we will celebrate Jesus’ birth; in June, we must celebrate John’s.  However, there is another good reason to be thinking about the Baptist at this point in our liturgical calendar.  His work, announced by Gabriel to Zechariah, his father, as he was doing priestly service in the Temple, would be to “make ready for the LORD a people prepared” (Lk 1:17b).  John would be the last of the great prophets of Israel, where, “until the day of his manifestation,” no voice of a prophet had been heard for four hundred years. Zechariah, unfortunately, had been skeptical of Gabriel’s promise, so he lost his voice until the day he could speak with confidence, not doubt, about God’s great work.  In our reading today, we see that when he named the child “John,” just as the angel had instructed, “his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.”

How good it is for us now, in this stretch of Ordinary Time before the next Advent season begins, to have this history planted in our imaginations!  John the Baptist prepared Israel for the appearance of Jesus, just as all the Scriptures and prayers of this season prepare us now to receive our King. John’s vocation was to “make ready” the hearts of the weak, the sinful, the doubtful, the lost.  Such is also the work of Ordinary Time—a quiet planting of the seeds of the Kingdom of God, week by week, in us.  We can be like Mary, who met Gabriel’s message to her with faith, or we can be like Zechariah, who let his doubts get the better of him.

When Elizabeth conceived and became pregnant, Zechariah must have realized how wrong he had been.  Why didn’t he get his voice back then? Recall that when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, he made a promise andgave a command:  “you shall call his name John” (Lk 1:13b).  When Zechariah not only believed but also obeyed, his voice returned, because then he would use it to sing God’s praises.  His obedience made him whole.

As we open our ears to hear the preaching of the Kingdom of God, we can learn from Zechariah’s experience by welcoming it with belief and obedience.  That is precisely what John the Baptist, when he began his prophetic work, preached to those listening to him, preparing them for the public appearance of Jesus:  “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Mt 3:8).  We can still hear the Baptist’s voice across the centuries:  “He who is mightier than I is coming” (Lk 3:16a).

Even in June, we can start getting ready for Him.

Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for sending messengers to stir us up, to wake us up sometimes.  Please help me hear and obey today.

First Reading (Read Isa 49:1-6)

This passage from the prophet, Isaiah, reminds us that God’s plan for our salvation was formed long before it actually got worked out in history.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus had vocations that began in their mothers’ wombs.  Isaiah tells us it was always meant to be that way:  “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb He gave me my name.”  We have here a profound witness to the dignity and value of life in the womb. Jesus in Mary’s womb and John in Elizabeth’s were alreadydoing their servant work for the Father (“For now the LORD has spoken, Who formed me as His servant from the womb”).  This specific prophecy from Isaiah is about the Messiah Who was to come, centuries later, but its emphasis on the call of God in the womb applies to all of us.  It is there that we come into being; it is there that God’s secret, mysterious work of creating a soul takes place.

How does this relate to our Gospel reading?  It can remind us, here in Ordinary Time, that the vocations of John and Jesus took timeto appear, mature and be ready to bear fruit.  The same is true for the germination of the Word of God in us.  Zechariah was not willing to wait for the verification of the angel’s word to appear in time before he rejected it as impossible.  What difference would patience and perseverance have made for him?

What difference can it make for us?

Possible response: Heavenly Father, I often wish You were in as much of a hurry as I am.  Please help me remember that all growth takes time.

Psalm (Read Ps 139:1b-3, 13-15)

The psalmist is quite taken with the way God’s knowledge of us penetrates into the womb.  The histories of Jesus and John teach us that truly God’s purposes for us begin in the womb, before birth:  “My soul also You knew full well; nor was my frame unknown to You when I was made in secret, when I was fashioned in the depths of the earth.”  This very personal knowledge God has of us is a comfort to the psalmist, as it should be to us, too.  When we understand that “my journeys and my rest You scrutinize, with all my ways You are familiar,” then we will sing with the psalmist: “I praise You, for I am wonderfully made.”

Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings.  Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.

Second Reading (Read Acts 13:22-26)

On one of his missionary journeys, St. Paul preached this message, recorded in Acts, to his fellow Jews. He outlined for them the human history through which God accomplished His purpose of redemption and reconciliation for mankind.  First through David, by establishing a throne, then through John, by “preaching a baptism of repentance,” God kept His promise to send “Israel a savior, Jesus.” Because we are thinking specifically about John the Baptist today, we want to note the purpose of his work in particular.  It was to prepare the people to receive a Savior.  To do that, they would need to be shaken up a bit, stirred out of their lethargy or indifference toward God.  They would need to believe they really needed saving, and they needed to be assured that the One Who was coming was way beyond their imaginations.  As obviously devout as John the Baptist was to the people who flocked to him, he declared that he was not to be compared to “the One coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of His feet.”

John the Baptist called the people of Judah to humility and expectation.  May Ordinary Time do the same in us.

Possible response: St. John the Baptist, please pray for me always to be eager and ready to receive Jesus.

image: By Sailko [CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

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Gayle Somers is a member of St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Phoenix and has been writing and leading parish Bible studies since 1996. She is the author of three bible studies, Galatians: A New Kind of Freedom Defended (Basilica Press), Genesis: God and His Creation and Genesis: God and His Family (Emmaus Road Publishing). Gayle and her husband Gary reside in Phoenix and have three grown children.

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