The Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist (June 24)
Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6 Acts of the Apostles 13:22-26
Luke 1:57-66, 80
This solemnity, celebrating the birth of the great prophetic precursor to Jesus, highlights God’s wondrous plan of salvation: the promises made to our Jewish ancestors in the Old Testament and John’s preaching of a baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of Jesus, the long-awaited savior from the line of David, who fulfills the promises to Abraham. The great agents of God’s plan-- the servant/Israel in the Book of Isaiah, John, and Jesus himself-- are called from birth, from their mother’s wombs, to fulfill God’s purposes. With the servant, John, and Jesus, let us praise the Lord for his saving guidance in the words of our responsorial psalm: “I praise you for I am wonderfully made” (Ps 139).
In the first reading, the prophet, living in exile in Babylon, takes on the persona of the servant/Israel and gives a first person report of Israel’s coming to a new understanding of its vocation as a people. Calling the “coastlands” to “hear,” the prophet reviews the birth and call of the nation. “The Lord called me from birth/ from my mother’s womb he gave me my name/. . . You are my servant, he said to me,/ Israel, through whom I show my glory.” Although the servant thought that he had toiled in vain (the experience of the exile), now he is suddenly aware that he has been recompensed by God (the unexpected, glorious return to the land). In this great moment in the Lord’s saving plan, servant Israel is given a double vocation: to restore Israel through repentance and to be a light to the nations of the earth by witnessing to the Lord’s powerful action in bringing the nation home from exile. “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/ . . . It is too little, he says for you to be my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob,/ . . . I will make you a light to the nations,/ that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
The reading from Acts is Luke’s account of Paul’s first sermon in the synagogues at Antioch in Pisidia. He proclaims God’s offer of salvation through Jesus to the descendants of Abraham and God-fearers (Gentiles who believe in God). Paul affirms the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus, the savior from the line of David. John’s role in this plan was twofold: to herald Jesus’ coming “by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel,” and, after he had completed his course, to proclaim the greatness of Jesus, the savior: “. . . 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.’”
In Luke’s wonder-filled account of John’s nativity he gives us both the joyous story of the birth of a child to a pious, barren old couple, but more importantly the first fulfillment of one of his prophecies (cf. Lk 1:5-23) about the arrival of the long-awaited Messianic age. Interestingly, Luke also introduces the theme of human resistance to God’s plan which will run throughout his Gospel and Acts. When the time arrives for Elizabeth to have her son, the neighbors and relatives “rejoice with her” because “the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her”, but at the circumcision when it is time to name the child, they want to name him Zechariah after his father and resist when Elizabeth insists his name shall be John, “the Lord is gracious,” the name that Gabriel said was to be given to him (Lk 1:13). When they turn to Zechariah, he asks for a tablet and writes, “John is his name.” The account concludes with portentous anticipation. The relatives are amazed as Zechariah’s dumb tongue is loosed and he blesses God (read his Benedictus in 1:68-79) which causes fear to come upon all their neighbors. Throughout the hill country of Judea, all who hear of these things are saying, “What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” Luke’s concluding verse gives us the sense that we are entering the story of “the things that have been accomplished among us” (1:1). “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”