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 name his child, and the fact that God Himself chose a name for this child 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.
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 and, as he came to know more and more of what went on in the side-wings, so to speak, of the priestly society in Jerusalem -- above all concerning the wealth, luxury, pride and venality of leading families -- the more indignant and alienated he felt:
The child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived (by preference) in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel.
In the desert we are told that:
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)
When he did, at last, appear publicly to Israel he seems to have 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 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.
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; and how often would Jesus Himself have to hear His opponents claim, ‘We have Abraham as our father’!
All that, however, was what John himself, as it were ‘picked up’ in the course of life, he was not directly taught such attitudes of disgust and anger. For his ‘formation’ given by his priestly father we must look at the Benedictus where St. Luke pictures for us an elderly father and priest, who has -- ever so recently – come, through suffering, to a very real and personal awareness of and reverence for the God of Israel. Moreover, this is an Israelite and a priest who has heard from his wife all about Mary and the Child she was carrying, and we can well imagine him musing in the presence of his son about the great goodness and majesty of Israel’s God, in His dealings with and purpose for His People:
The oath he swore to Abraham our father, to grant us that, freed from the hand of our enemies, we might worship Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days (Luke 1: 73-75),
and about his own son’s part to play in God’s plan because he, John, had been the first to experience the grace of God’s gifted Saviour when, even though being still in his mother’s womb, he had leapt for joy at his Saviour’s presence as his mother joyfully greeted Mary’s arrival.
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. (Luke 1:76-77)
However, even that was not the whole of John, for though his family background and personal gifts conspired to make him both significant and remarkable, it was his subsequent 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.
And here we must take most 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 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 for guidance on 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)
Only if and when they had produced fruit worthy of repentance, would John baptize them with, immerse them in, water; whereupon, they then could they go to the Temple and perform there the many cleansing ceremonies with right dispositions and so hope to receive the grace of God attached to those ritual ablutions.
John however, was fully aware of the limitations of the baptism he himself was offering, and therefore, as a true forerunner of Jesus, he used to speak to those who were truly repentant about 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.
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:
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.' (Luke 7:33-35)
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 ‘brood of vipers’; and, in that respect, we call to mind the later words of Jesus to His disciples (Matthew 7:6):
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.
We also recall the way Jesus used to speak only in parables to those who were not sufficiently well-disposed or well-prepared:
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.' (Matthew 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 future nurture, enlightenment and fulfilment.
John, therefore, 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 was not overawed by religious authority and power because he feared God first – having learnt that from his earliest years listening to his father’s vibrant and heart-felt words -- and, as one sent on his mission by God, he demanded signs of authentic repentance, otherwise, 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.
As 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, with the result that 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 or tears but withhold substantial obedience.
This is all to Mother Church's great loss: not because harshness, rigidity, are good in themselves, but because reverence and ‘fear of the Lord’ are absolutely essential if anyone is to draw close to God. John the Baptist was providentially sent by the Father to prepare the way for His Son because God alone can show His love for and bestow His mercy on His People, not any ‘man of God’ making emotional play with human words; and God will only show His mercy and love, in and through His beloved Son, to those whom reverence prevents from abusing that love and mercy, from mocking His most-beloved, and only begotten, Son. When reverence and fear of the Lord inspire in us the discipline of good works, when -- eschewing any quick fix -- they lead us to watch and wait dutifully and humbly for the Lord, and, above all, when such dispositions gradually constrain us to seek God first and self last in all our longings and aspirations, all our endeavours and commitment, then can we hope to become true disciples of Jesus, and by His Spirit further the coming of God’s Kingdom.