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Reflections for the solemnity of the birth of St. John the Baptist

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the solemnity of the birth of St. John the Baptist. He says that this feast reminds us of John’s prominent role in the history of salvation as the forerunner of the Messiah.

Solemnity of the birth of St. John the Baptist

Is 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Lk 1:57-66, 80

Homily starter anecdoteBe the finger of John the Baptist: Karl Barth, the great 20th century Calvinist theologian, would wake up early in the morning, read the newspaper, and stare at a painting by Grunewald called Crucifixion. Jesus is hanging from the cross, apparently dead, while Mary and others morn. John the Baptist, holding the Scriptures and leaning away from Christ, is pointing to Jesus on the Cross. Before he would teach theology or write in his famous work Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth would meditate on this painting, particularly on John the Baptist. He said that, as a Christian (whether a theologian, pastor, teacher, mother, doctor, storekeeper, etc.), our job is to be the finger (and only the finger), of John the Baptist. The only thing we should do – indeed, the only thing we can do – is simply point to Jesus on the cross. This scene painted by Grunewald is the sum of all history, from Creation in the past to eternity. And we are that finger, and within that finger rests the weight of salvation.

Introduction: We celebrate the feast of the Birth of John the Baptist this Sunday instead of the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time because of John’s prominent role in the history of salvation as the forerunner of the Messiah.  It was he who prepared Israel to receive their long-awaited Messiah by preaching repentance. Since John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus who prepared Israel for her Messiah, the “Servant” messianic prophecy of Isaiah is given as the first reading. The passage expresses important aspects of John’s career as a prophet to God’s people and as a light to the nations who was named and sanctified from his mother’s womb. The second reading describes the mission of John the Baptist. It tells us how John the Baptist, in all humility, publicly acknowledged his role as only the Messiah’s herald, whose role was to prepare Israel to receive the Messiah by inviting the people to receive the baptism of repentance. Today’s Gospel describes the birth of John the Baptist and his circumcision and naming ceremony on the eighth day. In the presence of friends and relatives, Zechariah miraculously regains his power speech after declaring in writing, “John is his name.” The name John means “God is gracious The remaining part of the chapter 1 in St. Luke’s gospel records Zechariah’s prophecy of the role his son is to take in the history of salvation.

First reading: Is 49:1-6: 49:1, explained:  Since John was the forerunner of Jesus who prepared Israel for her Messiah, the “Servant” prophecy of Isaiah serves as the first reading. These verses come from the so-called "Servant Songs" of Second Isaiah. This passage was chosen most obviously for its reference to the servant having been named from his mother’s womb (see Luke 1:60). But the passage also expresses important aspects of John’s career as a prophet to God’s people and a light to the nations. At the same time his status as servant makes him subordinate to Jesus. The author wrote these verses during the final days of the Babylonian exile. Christians understand this as a Messianic prophecy where the Servant is Christ. God gives his Servant two commands: 1) gather the Diaspora and bring them back to the land of Israel, and 2) be a light to the nations. Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled this mission. He is the Servant, and Faith in him gathers the faithful together, making Jesus the light to the nations. As mentioned in the prophecy, Jesus' name and office were given to him before he was even born, first to his mother Mary (Luke 1:31-33) and then to his stepfather Joseph (Matthew 1:20-21. 49:2). Isaiah compares the Servant to a “sharpened sword” and a “polished arrow. This Servant Jesus will bring salvation to the Gentiles, too.

The second Reading: Acts 13:22-26, explained: The second reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, is part of a speech given by Paul in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. The passage, describing the mission of John the Baptist and telling of his pivotal role in salvation history, won a place in the Gospel proclamation of the early Christians. In the passage, John the Baptist in all humility publicly acknowledged that his role was only that of a herald for the Messiah. As such, he had the task of preparing Israel to receive the Messiah by inviting them to receive the baptism of repentance. "John heralded [Jesus'] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel."  The reading also explains that Jesus of Nazareth was the Savior, descended from the family of Jesse as foretold by the prophets.

Gospel Exegesis: Parallels and contrast between John and Jesus in St. Luke’s infant narratives: Both births are miraculous. John was born of his aged parents and Jesus from a virgin. The coming births of both were announced by the angel: John’s in the Holy of Holies in the Temple and Jesus’ in a village house. The mission of John was to be the forerunner of the Messiah and the mission of Jesus was to be the saving Messiah. Luke highlights the greatness of Jesus and the subsidiary position of John as the precursor of the Messiah and the herald of God’s coming kingdom.

 John’s birth: Since the birth of a boy was an occasion of great joy among the Jews, Zechariah’ s neighbors and relatives and local musicians gathered at the courtyard to celebrate the occasion. At the announcement of John’s birth there was great rejoicing and the musicians broke into music and songs. In Elizabeth's house there was a double joy because at last she had a child in her old age and because that child was a son.

Circumcision and naming ceremony: When friends and relatives had assembled for the naming ceremony, to their great surprise, Elizabeth said that her son must be called John. Zechariah, consulted by the relatives and friends, concurred, writing “John is his name,” on a tablet. At that moment, his muteness was miraculously healed, and he began to praise God. John is a shorter form of the name Jehohanan, which means "Jehovah's gift" or "God is gracious." It was the name which God had commanded the child be given, and it described the parents' gratitude for this unexpected joy. The miraculous birth of the child to the elderly parents, the miraculous healing received by Zechariah and his prophetic hymn about the mission of his son prompted the people gathered there to ask the question, "What will this child turn out to be?"

Life messages:  1) We need to pray for our parents and be thankful to them for the gift of life, the training they have given us and the love and affection they have lavished on us.  Let us ask God’s pardon if we are, or were, ungrateful to them, do/did not take proper care of them in their illness or old age or ever inflicted pain on them.

 2) We need to remember and pray for our godparents who, by Baptism, made us children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, heirs of heaven and members of the Church. 

3) We need to have the courage of our Christian convictions as John the Baptist did, and we need to become heralds of Christ, as John was, by our transparent Christian lives. (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

21 June 2018, 13:12