THE NATIVITY OF ST JOHN THE BAPTIST

Let’s begin our reflection on today’s gospel passage from Luke with an overview. Luke often pairs stories: if he tells a story of a man, he will follow it with one about a woman. For example, Jesus tells the parable of the man who plants a mustard seed and then next, of a woman who mixes yeast and flour (13:18-21). Again, a man searches for lost sheep, and that story is followed by a woman’s search for a lost coin (15:1-10).

Luke’s gospel also defends and reassures women. Widows are mentioned frequently in this gospel. We moderns might not notice these details, but in Jesus’ time men dominated society, women and children were their subjects. (Things are not quite as “modern” as we think in our world, are they? For example, in our “advanced society” a woman still makes 74cents to a man’s dollar, for doing the same work.) In fact, Luke’s gospel doesn’t depict, or support women’s full equality with men. For example, most of the women do not speak in the narratives. Luke seems to think a woman’s role should be that of listener – hearing and reflecting on the word of God.

Elizabeth, in today’s gospel, is an exception to Luke’s depiction of silent women. So is the previous account of the Visitation, Mary’s visit to the aged and pregnant Elizabeth. Both women have much to say (1:39 ff).

Elizabeth and Zechariah were advanced in age and were childless. Barrenness would be blamed on the woman (1:7). And more. It was seen as a punishment for sin. But Luke insists both Zachariah and Elizabeth were “righteous.” We are being prepared for something: a righteous couple without a child, calls forth action from God. And God comes through. Elizabeth states what God has done: “In these days the Lord is acting on my behalf. God has seen fit to remove my reproach among people” (1:25). God does for Elizabeth what God has done throughout the Bible: comes to deliver a powerless people in need. God intervenes to take away her disgrace and makes Elizabeth fruitful – as God had done for Sarah, Hannah, Rachel and other remarkable women in Israel’s faith history.

Elizabeth has given birth and eight days later the child is to be circumcised. The roots of our story are in the Jewish experience of their covenant with God. God was at work in the past and is active in the events that are about to happen. God, once again, is coming to rescue the people and set them free.

Among African and Middle Eastern people, the naming ceremony is an important and celebratory affair. The baby’s name reflects the family history and status. That’s what the people at John’s circumcision were expecting: the child should be named Zechariah, after his father, according to custom. Perhaps one day the child would follow in his father’s footsteps and be a priest in the Temple. But God is interrupting people’s normal expectations and is doing something entirely new – as is God’s way.

Elizabeth interrupts the naming ritual to announce, “No. He will be called John.” It is a name that speaks of her and Zechariah’s experience. John means, “God has given grace,” (or, “God has been gracious”). It is not just the child’s name, is it? “God has given grace” sums up the entire gospel story; indeed the story of the Bible. God works among humans and once again brings salvation to the people. This child, “God has given grace,” will be a prophetic voice announcing the Messiah’s arrival. He will, “go before the Lord to prepare God’s way” (1:76).

Did those who were with Elizabeth, Zechariah and their new baby, know what the future would bring? No, but they would be alert enough to realize God was stirring and they should keep their eyes and ears open to see what God would do next. Their lives and the future of Israel were in God’s hands and God had begun a good work among them. John’s birth was just the beginning, but it certainly held out a great promise for them and for all people!

Biblical names have significance and help us interpret what is happening. As we said, John means, “God is gracious.” Elizabeth means, “oath of God” – God is fulfilling the promises God made of old. Zechariah means, “Lord remembers” – Israel is in a low point of its history, but God has not forgotten her. Those names apply to our present as well. How do you interpret them for yourself, our church and our world?

For example: What ways do I experience a “gracious God” in my community of faith and in my life in the world? What “promise” do I hear from these scriptures? What hope does God’s promise hold out to me now? Do I trust that God will “remember” me and not leave me to face anything on my own? 

There was little fanfare in John’s birth. To those who knew the family something extraordinary had happened. “All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’” But outside their circle, no one else knew of the events. Later, John’s cousin, Jesus, will be born in a manager. God is showing great mercy to God’s people, but in inconspicuous ways. Have you noticed that in your own life? Believers are given the wisdom to look for God’s hand working in seeming-ordinary events: the birth of a child; graduation from high school; marriage; a new job; a surprise visit from a loved one; a simple Eucharist, etc.

Rev Fr Jude Siciliano OP