The Nativity of John the Baptist
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
As soon as Zechariah confirms his son's name, John. . .Luke reports an odd event. He writes, “Then fear came upon all their neighbors.” Fear? Why? Why are Elizabeth's and Zechariah's neighbors fearful at the naming of the couple's son? John isn't a family name. We know that much. We know that Zechariah had his tongue frozen b/c he questioned the angel who brought news of Elizabeth's pregnancy months earlier. What's so horrible about the name “John” that it causes the whole neighborhood to quake in fear? “John” simply means “God shows Himself to be gracious.” Hardly terrifying. Well, you see, it's not just the name that's got people worked up. It's the whole way in which an elderly Elizabeth becomes pregnant and how Zechariah is punished by an angel and how his punishment is publicly lifted when he obeys the Lord and allows John to be named “John.” There's something special, something extraordinary about this kid. That mystery – "What, then, will this child be?" – is what's got them all whispering in fear.
If they knew then what we know now, they would be rejoicing. John is the herald of the Christ, our liberator from sin and death. Well, some of them would be rejoicing – those who actually want to be freed from sin and death and don't much mind the upheaval that Christ's birth, death, and resurrection will cause to their everyday lives. We can imagine that back then – like right now – there are those in the neighborhood who either don't believe that sin is a thing or don't believe that they themselves are actually committing a sin when they sin. If sin isn't real, or my favorite sin isn't really a sin in my mind, then I'm not going to be all that thrilled to hear about the birth of a prophet who preaches the necessity of repentance and the coming of the Savior. In fact, the birth of a prophet is probably going to shake things up and cause me a lot of inconvenience. . .not the least of which is having to hear about how sinful I am! So, yeah, I'd be afraid. Especially if I know my people's prophetic history. What does Isaiah say, “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. . .” Sharp swords and polished arrows can only mean one thing: THAT kid is going to be a pain in the neck.
And indeed he was. John the Baptist didn't make a lot of friends. He had his disciples. His followers. Those he baptized in repentance. And we all know the story of his demise. Dancing girl. Foolish king. Severed head. Silver platter. What we might not know is why the Church celebrates John's birth. We celebrate Christ's birth and the BVM's birth and John's. No one else's. So, why John? We celebrate John's birth b/c it is all too easy for us 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 the price we might have to pay for standing on the Truth, and we may fall to laxity in telling the truth. We remember John – his birth and death – so that we may never forget that we ourselves are heralds of the Christ. We are not The Christ. But we are on our way to becoming Christs. . .prophets of the Father's mercy in this world.
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