Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
Audio File Link
Elizabeth, a woman advanced in years, gives birth to a son. After wrangling with family and friends over what to name him, Elizabeth's husband, Zechariah, approves (in writing) the name she has chosen, and the boy is named John. With the child properly named, two events immediately follow: 1) Zechariah's punishment for doubting the word of God's angel about Elizabeth's pregnancy is lifted—his tongue is unstuck; and 2) “fear came upon all their neighbors.” These two events, following as they do upon the naming of this child, reveal to us the significance of the birth of Christ's herald: the name John means “God shows Himself to be gracious.” God, through the ministry of John the Baptist, reveals Himself to merciful, ready to forgive the transgressions of those who repent. Zechariah's tongue is freed so that he might pour blessings and praise upon the Lord. And the neighbors are filled with fear b/c everything they have ever believed, everyone they have ever known is about to change, radically, irrevocably change. John arrives among God's people to announce the coming of the Christ, the one who will break our chains and pierce our hearts.
Zechariah, Elizabeth, their family, friends, and neighbors all know that the long-promised Messiah is coming. More than 800 years before, the prophet, Isiah, sang one of his four Servant Songs, foretelling the coming Christ: “Listen, O distant peoples. The Lord called me from birth, from my mother's womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp edged sword [. . .] He made me a polished arrow [. . .] You are my servant, he said to me [. . .] through whom I show my glory.” The Christ will arrive as a sharp edged sword to cut the bonds of sin. He will fly to God's people as a polished arrow to pierce their hearts so that they might die and rise with him. But freeing the people from sin and taking them into death and new life is not the end of Christ's purpose. Isiah continues to sing, “It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant, [. . .] I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Christ's mission will not limited to those chosen in the covenant with Abraham. Christ comes as a light to all the nations so that the offer of the Father's mercy might be heard to the ends of the earth. John, he through whom “God shows Himself to be gracious” is just the beginning.
For what exactly is John just the beginning? John's birth presages the birth of Christ, and the birth of Christ signals a new birth for all of creation. When Zechariah doubts the word of God's angel about his wife's miraculous pregnancy he is doing more than just questioning the integrity of a divine messenger. No doubt believing himself to be just an average senior citizen doing average senior citizen stuff day after day, Zechariah is told that his elderly wife, known to be barren, is to bear him a son, a son named John who “will be filled with the holy Spirit [. . .] turn the [. . .] disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” And like any guy anywhere in the world in these circumstances, he balks at the news and asks, “Are you kidding me? My wife's an old lady!” And because he fails to remember who he is—a priest of God in God's temple—and b/c he flagrantly casts doubt on the entire prophetic heritage of his people, Zechariah is stuck speechless so that his doubt may not be spoken again. It is not until he names his son, John, “God shows Himself to be gracious,” that his tongue is freed to give God thanks and praise.
We know that John's birth presages the birth of Christ, and the birth of Christ signals a new birth for all of creation. And we know that Zechariah's tongue is freed once he confesses God's abounding mercy. But why are the neighbors afraid? Luke tells us that Zechariah immediately begins blessing God when his tongue is unstuck, and “then fear came upon all their neighbors. . .” As neighbors will do, they spread the news of John's birth, and “all who heard these things took them to heart, saying, 'What, then, will this child be?'” What will John be? If “John” means “God shows Himself to be gracious,” who will he become? If they remember their ancient prophetic heritage, they know all too well that John is the one who sharpens the sword of Christ and polishes his arrows. He is the one who warns that the light of righteousness is about to shine; the one who come before the salvation of the world. They are afraid b/c John is now among them to preach repentance and to baptize those who repent with the waters of mercy. For them, in their disobedience, John is an angel and a monster—a messenger of light from God and a beast sent to tear their world apart. Everything they believe and everyone they know is radically changed.
Here we are 2,000 years after the death and resurrection of Christ, celebrating the birth of God's monstrous angel, John the Baptist. Luke tells us in Acts that John would conclude his preaching by saying, “'What do you suppose that I am. I am not [the Christ]. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.'” John knew his ministry. He knew his mission. From the first moment that he met Jesus while both were still in their mothers' wombs, John knew that it was his task to run before the Christ, announcing the Good News of his advent. Why celebrate his birth in 2012? His mission is accomplished. Christ is born. The light of the nations has dawned and salvation is freely received by anyone who repents. We celebrate John's birth b/c it is all too easy to forget our prophetic heritage; to set aside the ancient voice of God and misremember the promises He made ages ago. If we forget, our tongues become stuck in ignorance and we cannot offer Him thanks and praise for His gifts. We cannot bear witness to His goodness in our lives. We cannot ask for what we need, nor receive what He has given us. If we forget John, we forget that God shows Himself to be gracious to us, and we cannot show His graciousness to others. If we forget John, we forget that we ourselves are heralds of the Christ, and we forget that we too were born to bear his banner to the world.
When you bear Christ's banner to the world, your family, friends, and neighbors may stare at you in fear and ask, “What, then, will this child be?” Who is this person claiming to be a follower of Christ? If you will bear his banner as a herald, you must unstick your tongue and pour out blessings and praise on God. John was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed for his righteousness. Expect no less if you will be a herald of Christ. If you will be a herald of Christ, you will tell the truth; always do the right thing; preach the Father's boundless mercy; and love, with great abandon, you will love. Expect defiance, argument, ridicule, insults, even violence. Expect the powers of this world to name you a criminal, a rebel, a bigot. At every moment, expect the darkness to come and tempt you with its easy oblivion. Just remember John, he through whom God shows Himself to be gracious. And while you remember, never forget to unstick your tongue and give your voice to the Word of salvation: Christ has come to right the world with his love. He has come to cut our bonds to sin and to pierce our hearts with his mercy.
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