Nativity of John the Baptist
June 24, 2018
“Time is really slipping away,” Would you believe it’s only six months until Christmas.”
Yes, only six months!
But, for a preview of coming attractions, and a glance ahead to Christmas, look no further than the feast we celebrate today, the nativity of John the Baptist. Even now, in the blazing heat of June, just past the summer solstice, when the days are longest and we’re lathering on the SPF 40 sunscreen… our attention is being drawn to a distant star of winter.
Because today, we meet another miraculous infant: the one who will grow up to prepare the way of the Lord.
This is a phenomenal feast – and a rare one. Only three times during the year does the Church celebrate a birthday: for Jesus, for His mother… and for John the Baptist. The Baptist is in distinguished company, and this serves to remind us just how important he is to our salvation history.
When you consider the circumstances surrounding it, the Nativity of John the Baptist is almost as full of wonder as the nativity of Jesus. Like Jesus’s birth, there is great mystery… There was an angel who announced it… parents who hadn’t planned on it… and a name for the baby that was chosen by God.
John the Baptist actually came for the sole purpose of preparing the way for the messiah. Hence the bareness of Elizabeth, all the while within God’s divine plan. Her womb had been prepared to carry the immediate herald of the advent of the messiah. John the Baptist couldn’t have been born at any other time and for any other purpose apart from the time and season of the Messiah. He was born for that purpose and he knew it from the mother’s womb. No wonder then, he leapt for joy when Mary the Mother of the Lord greeted his mother (Luke 1:41).
John did not draw attention to himself. Rather, he presented himself as a preparation, a forerunner, a prophet preparing the way of the Lord He was summing up much of Israelite history, but stressing that this history was open-ended, unfinished.
The birth of John the Baptist served as a strong indicator that God’s plan for the salvation of mankind was near.
In one of the more remarkable moments of this gospel, Elizabeth defied family tradition with one succinct phrase: “He will be called John.” She was able to make that leap of faith and give this child the name for which he was destined. “He will be called John.”
John is an ancient Hebrew name rich with meaning – for Zechariah and Elizabeth. And for us.
As the gospel indicates, the name is not an accident. It was pronounced by the angel Gabriel – and its meaning serves to send a message to the world.
In Hebrew the name יוֹחָנָן, Yochanan, the first part from the roots יוֹ (yo) referring to the Hebrew Yahweh and the second part חָנַן (chanan) meaning ” to be gracious”. Hence the full meaning “YAHWEH is gracious”,
In giving an aging, childless couple a new life… God is gracious.
In making what seemed impossible possible… God is gracious.
In working miracles where we least expect… God is gracious.
He is gracious in offering us that most precious and elusive commodity: hope. And so it was that before this child has uttered a word… John, just with his name… announced the hope that would come with the Christ.
God is gracious.
How desperately we need to hear that now. The news nowadays can be numbing, and dispiriting. In a time of church scandal, of political mudslinging, of economic anxiety and war and volatility around the globe… it can be tempting to forget that simple, undeniable and enduring truth:
Despite our hardships and misgivings, our problems and setbacks… God is gracious. And His grace is what sustains us.
We are also reminded this Sunday that we have come to a kind of turning point in the liturgical calendar. This day, we mark one of the oldest feasts in the church — and one that comes smack in the middle of our calendar.
And for good reason; the birth of John the Baptist is the pivot around which our calendar turns – in (John 3:30) John says: “He must increase, I must decrease.” We are reminded of this fact celebrating John’s birth just days after the summer solstice, when daylight will now decrease, and we will celebrate the birth of Jesus just days after the winter solstice, when daylight will increase. And so John’s life was the fulcrum for our faith.
He was the last prophet of the Old Covenant – and the first prophet of the New. He is the doorway through which humanity was able to enter the Christian era.
He opened the world’s ears – and eyes – to possibility. He made us ready for Christ.
Consider what that has meant for us, and how the forerunner of the Messiah was also the forerunner of all that we do here this day.
When Jesus came to John asking for baptism, John recognized Jesus at once… and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) These words have found their way into the Mass; when the priest holds up the Sacred Host as we prepare for Holy Communion he says, “ This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…” John prepared the way of the Lord. And he prepared the way for all that would follow – including this Holy Sacrifice that we celebrate today.
Beyond being a prophet, and a martyr, and a saint, John the Baptist was one of God’s gifts to a needy and searching world – a sign to us of a Father’s generous love for His children; a cause for optimism and a reason for hope. You could almost consider this feast the Christmas BEFORE Christmas. And it comes to us as a blessed reminder of what God can do.
Elizabeth, the Baptist’s mother, put it so clearly and so perfectly, as mothers often do.
“He will be called John.”
Because God is gracious.