The Birth of John the Baptist
Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66, 80)
The fact that God gave Zechariah and Elizabeth's child the name "John" is most significant. It was considered to be the father's privilege to give a name to his child, and so, the fact that it was God Himself Who, through the angel Gabriel, named him ‘John’ shows that John was indeed to be, as we would say, "God's man". As you heard in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah:
Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name.
When God took possession of Abram and Sarai, He gave them new names, Abraham and Sarah, to indicate the new purpose and destiny which was to be theirs. And so, when Elisabeth and Zechariah abided by the name given to them for the child by the angel, Gabriel, they were, in reality, welcoming for the child the destiny planned for him by God, they were, indeed, devoting him to God.
The name ‘John’ means ‘The Lord has been gracious’ and it leads us to anticipate that, in His Providence, God would subsequently be gracious to His Chosen People through John.
John’s background fostered the development of his distinctive character: he was born into a provincial priestly family, his father being a priest of the order of Abijah while his mother was of the family of Aaron. As he came to know the weaknesses and failings of the priestly society in Jerusalem concerning their attitude towards, and treatment of, visiting provincial priests; and, above all, on recognizing the wealth, luxury, pride and venality of the leading priestly families – he may well have found himself both indignant at his parents’ treatment, and alienated by the excessive pomp and intrusive politics of Temple and city life, for we are told that:
The child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived (by preference) in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel (Luke 1:80).
In the Judean desert:
John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey (Matthew 3:4).
John did not take on such a life in a spirit of rejection or revolt, for then he would have turned out to be a very bitter, disillusioned, and ultimately empty person, far, far indeed from the positive and striking character we know him to have been. No, his choice of life-style was the result of God’s choice of him:
When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41).
John, by the choice and grace of God the Father – for none can come, let alone draw near, to Jesus unless called by the Father – had leaped FOR SHEER JOY in his mother’s womb at Jesus’ approach in His mother’s womb. Moreover, Elizabeth herself was filled, at that same moment, with the Holy Spirit, bestowed on her that she might bring up fittingly the child of her old age, by the God Who, as her neighbours and relatives clearly recognized and wonderingly proclaimed, had shown her such great mercy. No wonder at all then, that:
These things were talked about through all the hill country of Judah, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” (Luke 1:66)
This child was so closely connected with Jesus: by family, Mary and Elizabeth being cousins; both being foretold by the angel Gabriel and born miraculously; both intimately called to the desert; and directly related over the course and purpose of their lives, as Zechariah -- under divine inspiration -- exclaimed:
And you, (my) child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1: 76)
And, yet you know, that does not express all that was planned by God for John! He would be called a prophet, one, that is, who speaks for, on behalf of, in the name of, God. Indeed, he would become the one chosen to speak for God the Father about His own Son, His only-begotten and most beloved Son!!
This indeed, would be confirmed by Jesus Himself when subsequent to John’s imprisonment by Herod He said to the people gathered round Him:
What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in king’s courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. … I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. (Luke 7:24-28)
It might even possibly be that, when Jesus attained His majority in regard to the Law and had stayed behind in Jerusalem ‘lost’ in admiration and love in His Father’s house, John was himself leaving his home and setting out for the desert … to fulfil his vocation, to respond to the wondrous choice that God had made of him. He was drawn to the desert where God could speak to his heart and secretly form and gradually establish him in self-forgetfulness, and peaceful expectance of, and attention to, God; that He, the most-loving Father, might gradually purify, enlighten, and strengthen him so as to intuitively appreciate, whole-heartedly serve, and most faithfully proclaim His beloved only-begotten Son as the Holy One of Israel.
When he did, at last, appear publicly to Israel he preached strongly against the lives of luxury, trappings of wealth, and quest for money and power which characterized the upper echelons of priestly society in Jerusalem, and equally the pride which motivated so many Scribes and Pharisees in their search for influence and public esteem. These things so appalled and disgusted John that, on noticing certain figures coming to witness or avail themselves of the baptism he was giving by the Jordan, he burst out:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:7-8)
In this respect, John was indeed the culmination of the prophets of old who had so often, over the centuries, castigated the sins of Israel!
However, that was not the whole of John, for though his family background and personal character conspired to make him both significant and remarkable, it was his vocation from God that rendered him quite unique. God did not only "make his mouth a sharp sword" against the Lord's enemies, but he was also "honoured in the eyes of the Lord" to the extent that he was called to begin to "bring back Jacob to the Lord", which is why, as we all heard in the first reading, John went about the region of the Jordan:
Preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)
Here we must take even more careful notice of John. He offered a baptism, an immersion, for the forgiveness of sins, but only to those coming forward for that baptism with the sincerity of their repentance backed up by the evidence of good works done:
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
Such was John’s insistence: they had to stop standing on their dignity by thinking "we have Abraham as our father" or "we are levitical priests”, or again, “we are learned scribes or holy Pharisees"; instead they had to show the truth of their sorrow for past sins by their present efforts at righteousness. John would also give advice to those who asked him on how and what sort of fruit for repentance they should bring with them:
“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?" "Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely-be content with your pay." (Luke 3:11-14)
When they had produced such fruit worthy of repentance, John would baptize them with, immerse them in, water; and only then could they go back to the Temple and perform the many cleansing ceremonies with right dispositions and so hope to receive the grace of God attached to those ritual ablutions.
However, John had still more to offer. He was fully aware of the limitations of the baptism he himself was offering, and therefore, as a true forerunner of Jesus, he would speak to those who were truly repentant of the One who was to come:
I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:16)
In this way, St. Luke tells us:
With many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
In his personal life style John differed greatly from Jesus. Jesus did not live in the desert, although it was in the desert where He first conquered the Devil. Jesus did not wear a garment of camel's hair, nor was His food locusts and wild honey although there were times when He had nowhere to lay His head, times when He was exhausted by lack of food and water. Jesus once referred to the obvious contrast between Himself and John saying (Luke 7:33-35):
John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.'
In his teaching, however, John was indeed a man after Jesus' own heart. Just as we heard God say of David in the second reading, so too it could be said of John that he was, for Jesus:
A man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.'
It would appear that John did not mention the One who was to come to the unrepentant, "the brood of vipers", and we then call to mind the later words of Jesus to His disciples:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)
We also recall in this respect the way Jesus used to speak only in parables to those who were insufficiently- or not well- disposed:
The disciples came to him and asked, "Why do you speak to the people in parables?" He replied, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: "Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand." In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” (Matt 13:10-15)
People of God, for many in the Church today John the Baptist is unknown and unappreciated and it is a mystery to them why he has such prominence in Mother Church's liturgy for only he -- together with Peter and Paul -- of all the prophets and apostles, has both a vigil and a solemn celebratory Mass and Office. Mother Church cannot forget what God has given her to preserve for His children, given her for their nurture, enlightenment and fulfilment.
John, who first delighted in Jesus in the womb of Mary and still delights in Jesus in His Church, has a most important lesson for us children of Mother Church, a lesson and a teaching which makes him little regarded today by many who like to follow trends rather than seek truth. John demanded signs of repentance and without such signs he would not baptize the proud and prestigious, the luxurious and sinful ones, who might come to him:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:7-8).
As St. Mark's Gospel (1:14-15) tells us, Jesus picks up from where John left off:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
Today it is popularly considered that the approach to Jesus should be made as easy as possible. As a result, His call to repentance can easily be watered down and His teaching not so much adapted as adulterated; while the Blood of Christ is splashed around like water in the ‘Asperges’ when the sacraments are given to those who gladly proffer a show of words but withhold substantial obedience.
This is all to Mother Church's great loss: not because harshness, rigidity, even strictness are good in themselves, but because reverence is absolutely essential if one is to draw close to God. John was providentially sent by the Father to prepare the way for His Son because God can only show His love and mercy in and through His Son to those whom reverence prevents from abusing that love and mercy. Only when reverence inspires in us the discipline of good works, when -- eschewing any quick fix -- it leads us to watch and wait dutifully and humbly for the Lord; and, above all, only when such reverence gradually persuades and constrains us to seek God first and put self last, can we hope to become true disciples of Jesus and further the coming of God’s Kingdom.