HIS NAME IS JOHN
(A biblical reflection on the Solemnity of THE BIRTHDAY OF SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST – Thursday, 24 June 2021)
Gospel Reading: Luke 1:57-66,80
First Reading: Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalms: Psalm 139:3, 13-15, Second Reading: Acts 13:22-26
The Scripture Text
Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord has shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all marvelled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.
And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel. (Luke 1:57-66, 80 RSV)
The Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist as a solemnity not only because he was the forerunner of Christ, but also because, as the Lord Himself said, he is the greatest among those born of women (Matthew 11:11).
It is in some ways surprising that we have any account at all of the birth of John the Baptist. Two of the Gospels, Mark and John, have no account even of the birth of Jesus. Matthew has an account of the birth of Jesus, but not of John the Baptist. Only Luke presents an account of the birth of John the Baptist, and his version is governed by two literary principles: First, he makes the account of John’s birth a direct and detailed parallel to the birth of Jesus; second, he writes his account of both births in the tradition of the births of Old Testament prophets and of classical biographies of heroic figures. In a sense, Luke is the most accomplished New Testament writer. He writes also, as his prologues to his Gospel and to his Acts of the Apostles testify, in the tradition of classical writers of history, and he writes the most elegant Greek in all of the New Testament, excepting perhaps that of the author of the letter to the Hebrews.
John was born when Zechariah his father and Elizabeth, his mother, were both old (Luke 1:18), and the lady was considered barren (Luke 1:36). In their case, within the human limits, a conception and a birth were impossible. But all things are possible for God. John’s birth was not a mere biological exception, but a special favor granted by God. Through his birth and mission, the power of God was guiding human history. We know this from the angel’s message to Mary, “And behold your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will impossible” (Luke 1:36-37). Accordingly John’s birthday is celebrated six months before the birthday of the Lord.
The angel of the Lord had told Zechariah about the child, “… he will be great before the Lord … and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb … and he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah …” (Luke 1:15-17). Even before they were born, Jesus and John met. John was so delighted in the presence of Jesus that he leaped for joy while still in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:44).
After his long silence, when John’s father spoke, his first words were a song of praise to God. Zechariah was a man of God, and after a long period speechlessness, at the first opportunity he spoke of what was foremost in his mind: the Benedictus (The Canticle of Zechariah). He also said to the child, “You shall be called a prophet of God the Most High. You shall go ahead of the Lord to prepare His ways before Him” (Luke 1:76). This, in fact, John did, crying out: “Repent, turn away from your sins, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). He exhorted the people to prepare the way of the Lord. He qualified himself as the voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord!
Saint Augustine of Hippo [354-430] says: “John marks the frontier between the Old and the New Testaments. The Lord speaks of him as the boundary line: ‘The law and the prophets are valid until John the Baptist.’ He represents the Old Testament and at the same time introduces the New.”
Prayer: Heavenly Father, You sent Saint John the Baptist to the people of Israel to make them ready for Christ the Lord. Give the grace of joy in the Spirit, and guide the hearts of all the faithful in the way of salvation and peace. We pray this in the most precious name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Note: This is a revision of my writing dated 24 June 2018
Jakarta, 24 June 2021
A Christian Pilgrim