On June 24th, the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches celebrate the solemnity of the birth of John the Baptist. When June 24 falls on Sunday, the solemnity takes precedence over the ordinary readings. So today, we consider the readings relating to the birth of John the Baptist, taken from Luke’s Gospel.
The Linked Fate of John and Jesus
John is a Hebrew name, יוֹחָנָן, Yôḥanan, which means “graced by God.” Luke’s Gospel tells us that the fate of John and Jesus are inextricably linked from the very beginning. The births of John and Jesus are so important in the divine economy that they warrant an annunciation by an angel of the Lord, Gabriel.
In John’s case, the angel indicates that Elizabeth, who is not of child-bearing age, will have a son. In Mary’s case, the angel tells Mary, who is a virgin, that she will have a son. Luke communicates to us that God achieves his will through unexpected ways, and in ways that challenge our own faith and conventional wisdom.
In today’s reading, we are told that Elizabeth, the mother of John, affirms that the baby shall be named “John,” which comes as a surprise to her relatives. They turn to her husband Zechariah, who cannot speak, and he affirms on a writing tablet that the baby should be named John. Elizabeth and Zechariah are simply affirming the wish of the angel Gabriel, who told them to name the child “John” in verse 1:13.
John, the cousin of Jesus, plays an important role in laying the groundwork for the ministry of Jesus. All four Gospels tell us that John warns the pharisees to repent and make straight the way of the Lord, in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. This phrase is inherently messianic, since literally it means “prepare a highway for the Lord” (Is 40:3). The prophet Malachi later predicts (Mal 4;5) that another prophet, Elijah, will return to announce the coming of the Lord.
Even before John is born, the angel Gabriel informs Zechariah (Lk 1:17) that his son is predestined for a prophetic office. The angel tells Zechariah that his yet-to-be-born son will one day
go before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.
Thirty years later, after John is arrested by Herod, John sends word to Jesus and asks Jesus, through his messengers, if he is the Messiah. After Jesus describes the mighty works that have been accomplished in the Lord’s name, Jesus then turns to the crowd, and speaks to them (Mt 11:9-11) about his imprisoned cousin John:
“Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…”
Jesus confirms that John’s ministry (in Mt 11:14) is a fulfillment of the work of the prophet Elijah when he says if you are willing to accept, he is Elijah, the one who is coming. John the Baptist is the one who fulfills the role of Elijah by announcing the coming of the the Messiah. John, who is now imprisoned, sees his ministry come to an end when the daughter and wife of Herod ask for John’s head.
John the Baptist is a favorite subject of classical painters, and he is often portrayed with a shepherd’s staff in hand, in the shape of a cross, and a lamb at his side. This imagery comes from John 1:29, where John takes sight of Jesus and says, behold, the lamb of God.
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.