Scripture and the Liturgy

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

This Thursday we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, a great saint and biblical character who led a very difficult life and ministry.  The Solemnity of John the Baptist is a very important feast day that is given the dignity of marking the mid-point of the liturgical year, six months from Christmas. On or near the longest day of the year, the feast of John the Baptist was very culturally significant in northern Europe, in Scandinavia and the coast of the North Sea and the Baltic, where this Holy Day was celebrated with great bonfires and feasting. We should celebrate it, too, with special meals and maybe late-night outdoor fires, perhaps roasting some marshmallows and making smores. The fact that John’s feast day lands on the date after which the day-time begins to decrease reminds us of John’s statement about the Lord: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In hindsight, the conflict that led to John’s demise and martyrdom has a strangely modern ring to it: he was jailed by Herod Antipas for speaking out on marriage (Mark 6:17-18).  Specifically, John the Baptist held to the principle of one man, one woman, for life—a theology of marriage founded in Scripture (Mal. 2:13-16) and reflected in the Essene movement at Qumran (CD 4:19–5:2) and in the teachings of Our Lord (Matt 19:3-12).  This got him into trouble with the nation’s chief executive, Herod Antipas, whose own views on marriage had “evolved”: he had wed Herodias, his divorced ex-sister-in-law, who was also his niece.  John the Baptist said the marriage was unlawful.  Herod invoked executive privilege to have John arrested and detained for expressing his “intolerant” and “bigoted” views on marriage in public.  Eventually, Herod had him beheaded at the request of his wife Herodias’ daughter Salome, who gave a “hot” hip-hop performance for the king and his cabinet that earned her a political favor (Mark 6:14-29).

You and I surely feel that if we had been there, we would have stood up for John the Baptist, but the truth is: we wouldn’t have.  If we had been there, some of us would have said, “His theology is sound, but he’s too rigid.”  Others of us would have criticized John for lack of pastoral sensitivity, or for making the faith too political: “weaponizing” matrimony.  Still others would have sagely said John should have accompanied Herod rather than rebuked him.  And so the saints are lonely figures, because they stand for truth, and get persecuted by the bad and abandoned by the good. 

There is really nothing new under the sun. John the Baptist was a political failure but a great spiritual success, a champion of faith and fortitude who still lives and is praying for us from heaven. The readings for his feast day also provide us hope and encouragement:

1.  The first reading is Isaiah 49:1-6, one of the most glorious of Isaiah’s “Servant Songs”—that is, long poems about the “servant of the Lord” who will come to redeem the people of Israel:

Hear me, O coastlands,
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
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.

Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.
For now the LORD has spoken
who formed me as his servant from the womb,
that Jacob may be brought back to him
and Israel gathered to him;
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is now my strength!
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

This prophetic poem applies in the first place to the Messiah, the royal son of David; in fact, it presents itself as the first-person speech of the Servant/Messiah himself.  The fact that the speaker of this poem is both called “Israel,” and at the same time is an individual separate from Israel that has been called to gather Israel back to God, can be explained through the concept of sacred kingship.  As Joseph Jensen remarks: “In virtue of the concept of corporate personality, the king was considered to be the embodiment of the whole nation, not merely a governor or a figurehead.  Every blessing that came to him came to the whole nation” (God’s Word to Israel [Liturgical Press, 1988], 145).  So the servant is a royal figure, who embodies the nation and thus can be called “Israel,” while at the same time he is sent to restore Israel.  So in the first place, this passage of Scripture is talking about Jesus.

So why do we read it for a feast of John the Baptist?  Because John the Baptist, his life and ministry, were intimately tied to that of Jesus, and in fact John was, so to speak, assimilated or conformed to Christ.  Therefore we see striking similarities between John and Jesus, and much of what is said of Christ in this passage of Isaiah is also true of John: (1) he was chosen from the womb (Lk 1:5-25), (2) he displayed God’s power in mighty words and deeds (Lk 3:1-18), (3) he experienced frustration and apparent failure in his ministry (Mt 14:1-14), (4) he had a ministry both to Israel and to the Gentiles:

Soldiers [i.e. Gentile Romans] also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” –Luke 3:14

Every Christian becomes absorbed into the life and mission of Jesus.  John was “absorbed in advance.”  His life and ministry “pre-capitulated” that of Jesus, and so we read this great prophecy of the Christ on John’s feast day and recognize how much of it applies to John, too.

2.  Our responsorial psalm is the great “pro-life” Psalm (139), portions of which we often see on bumper stickers:

R. (14) I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
O LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and when I stand;
you understand my thoughts from afar.
My journeys and my rest you scrutinize,
with all my ways you are familiar.
R. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
Truly you have formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works.
R. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.
My soul also you knew full well;
nor was my frame unknown to you
When I was made in secret,
when I was fashioned in the depths of the earth.
R. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made.

This psalm and similar Scriptures part of the reason the Christian Church has always believed that the killing of the unborn is wrong, because the life of the human person begins already in the womb.

It is not just John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Jesus, the Blessed Mother, or other saints whose lives God planned in advance, and whose bodies were carefully brought together in the wombs of their holy mothers.  Each one of us is intended by God, and “thought” by Him before we come to exist (Eph 1:3-6).  It is not as if God plans the conception and birth of some, and as for the rest of us—oh, well, we just came about by random accident.  Campus Crusade and others have used the phrase so much that it has become trite and cliché to our ears, but it is nonetheless true: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.  “Wonderful,” however, does not mean pleasant and pain-free, as we see from the life of John.

3. The second reading is from Acts 13:22-26

In those days, Paul said:
“God raised up David as king;
of him God testified,
I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart;
he will carry out my every wish.
From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise,
has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance
to all the people of Israel;
and as John was completing his course, he would say,
‘What do you suppose that I am’ I am not he.
Behold, one is coming after me;
I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.”

“My brothers, sons of the family of Abraham,
and those others among you who are God-fearing,
to us this word of salvation has been sent.”

In this reading, Paul makes mention of the Royal Son of David, the “Servant” of whom Isaiah spoke, the sacred embodiment of Israel who came to save Israel.  This person is not John, but is Jesus; and Paul reminds us that John explicitly said he was not the one, but we were to wait for another coming after him.  So John pointed always to Jesus in his ministry.  His ministry was not about himself, but Another.  That’s an important reminder for every Christian, and especially for everyone who is a ministry “professional”—for example, priests, religious sisters, campus ministers, DRE’s, conference speakers, musicians, youth leaders, theology professors, and bible scholars.  Our ministry can’t become about ourselves—our newest book, concert, product, etc.  It’s got to point to Jesus.  Otherwise it’s meaningless.

4. Our Gospel is Luke 1:57-66, 80:

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child
she gave birth to a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard
that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her,
and they rejoiced with her.
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child,
they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
but his mother said in reply,
“No. He will be called John.”
But they answered her,
“There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”
So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.
He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,”
and all were amazed.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed,
and he spoke blessing God.
Then fear came upon all their neighbors,
and all these matters were discussed
throughout the hill country of Judea.
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying,
“What, then, will this child be?”
For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit,
and he was in the desert until the day
of his manifestation to Israel.

Just a few little details to enrich our appreciation of this passage:

(1) “the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her”

The concept of “mercy” here, expressed by the Greek eleos, translates the Hebrew concept hesed, which is a little more specific: “covenant faithfulness” or “covenant fidelity.”  God has kept his word and his covenant with Elizabeth, and granted her a blessing as a faithful daughter of his people.

(2) “When they came on the eighth day”

Moses commanded circumcision on the eighth day (Lev 12:3).  Zechariah and Elizabeth are part of a community that takes God’s law and obedience to it seriously.  The “eighth day” in Jewish piety eventually became a symbol of the new beginning or the new creation—the child in circumcision was almost becoming a new person.  Therefore his name was formally bestowed at that point.  We can observe the parallels with baptism (see Col 2:11-12)

(3) “Zechariah” means “The LORD has remembered” or “The LORD remembers”; “John” is a contraction of “Yah-hen” (“Jo-han”) meaning “The grace [hen] of the LORD [Yah].”

(4) Zechariah’s song, the traditional “Benedictus,” (Lk 1:67-79) is omitted from our Gospel reading, but it’s worth meditating on for this feast day:

Luke 1:67   And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,  68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people,  69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,  70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,  71 that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us;  72 to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant,  73 the oath which he swore to our father Abraham,  74 to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear,  75 in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.  76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,  78 through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 

We can observe in Zechariah’s song several themes from Isaiah, especially the image of “light” going out to the people, to guide them to salvation.

Finally, let’s consider the description of John’s upbringing: “he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”  It is unlikely that Zechariah and Elizabeth just shooed young John out the door to fend for himself in the desert.  How did he survive out there. From a historical point of view, it may be the case that John was raised by the Essenes at Qumran, as Raymond Brown, Bargil Pixner, and many other scholars have speculated.  Josephus and other historians mention that the Essenes took in boys and trained them, somewhat like postulants in a religious order.  I think its plausible if not demonstrable that John had contact with the community that left us the Dead Sea Scrolls.  After all, they were a community run by priests of legitimate descent from Zadok, the great high priest under Solomon.  It is likely that Zechariah was a Zadokite and sent John to be trained by his brother priests living in monastic exile on the shores of the Dead Sea. They expected two messiahs: one from the line of Aaron (a priest) and one from the line of David (a king). The way Luke tells about the childhood and early ministry of Jesus in Luke 1-2, he may have wanted to present John the Baptist as the “priestly messiah” the Essenes were expecting.

Be that as it may, the “desert” also has a spiritual sense.  Despite all the glorious things said about John and the remarkable events surrounding his birth, his life was not easy.  It was one of self-denial and mortification.  It’s true, his preaching was popular and he received public acclaim—for a while.  But from a certain perspective, he was a glorious failure, a big flop.  His run-in with the government ended badly and his “movement” fell apart, even if there were still a few “fans” left years later (Acts 19:1-3).

But that’s only from one perspective, an external and material one.  A certain prophet from Nazareth had a much different evaluation of the success of his ministry: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11).

Like John, if we speak about God’s truth boldly and continue to point toward Jesus, we are going to provoke opposition in this world from those who don’t want to hear it because it doesn’t suit their agenda.  It may mean the loss of income, employment, possession and life.  We’ve got to maintain an eternal perspective: God has a plan for each of us that began before our birth and extends beyond our death.  The goal is not visible success in this life.  It’s covenant fidelity (hesed) toward the one who is greater than us, whose sandals we are not worthy to tie, but nonetheless promises to “raise us up on the last day” (John 6:40).

St. John the Baptist, pray for us to stay faithful to Jesus Christ whatever persecutions it may bring us.

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