The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
What then will this child become? In the event of the birth of a child, this is not an uncommon question. As family, friends, and the wider community come together to celebrate a new birth, there are many hopes, dreams, and well-wishes expressed to the parents. As each year passes, many in this same circle will come together and celebrate the birthday of the young child as it grows, matures, and takes on personality and interests. Eventually they will find their place in that same community, contributing to the wider society, and carrying on the legacy of their parents. There are many in the community who will have a hand in helping to guide the child as they grow into adulthood. Looking back, perhaps we can name all of those who have been influential in our lives and have taken stock in our well-being.
In our gospel lesson from Luke, this question is flavored by the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the birth of John. His mother and father were well on in years. Elizabeth, well past child bearing age and having never been able to conceive, now finds herself pregnant. How will she be able to care for a child in her old age, much less survive childbirth? Zechariah, after an angelic vision in the Temple announcing the birth of his son and his vocational future as the Baptizer, questions this as real and is struck mute as a sign. The name given to the boy is unknown to the family. The loosening of Zechariah’s tongue, his praising of God, and his proclamation of prophecy connecting this birth to God’s covenant with Israel is a strange occurrence. The gospel writer says: “Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about through the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will THIS child become?’”
Like the childhood and teenage years of his cousin Jesus, the one whom he will point to as the Messiah, John’s youth is a mystery. We can only speculate as to what it might have been like. Luke says that John grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. The next time we see John in scripture, he is a wildly eccentric preacher. The writers of Mark and Matthew paint a picture of John clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. He was a spectacle who drew the curiosity of many. True to his divine calling, he announced the coming of the Messiah, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John was often aggressive in his proclamation, referring to some as a brood of vipers fleeing God’s wrath. Who was he talking to? Wasn’t the Messiah going to rescue them from the grip of Roman rule and restore peace to God’s chosen people? Were not they the chosen?
What then will THIS child become? We read that John does indeed point to the Lord, his cousin who is a Nazarean with a questionable pedigree. John says of Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God!” Many balk at first including Nathaniel who upon hearing the spreading news asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” After an encounter with Jesus, Nathaniel proclaims: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” You may remember Jesus’ reply, “‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” Jesus’ reference to the story of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis, identifying himself as the altar-stone must have seemed incredulous to some even with John’s endorsement.
What then will THIS child become? I wonder if John asked himself the same question when imprisoned. Perhaps like many of us on our vocational paths he wonders, “How in the world did I end up here?” Did he realize that this cousin of his was to turn the world upside down? The gospel writer of Luke says that while John is in prison he has a moment of doubt and sends his disciple to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus returns the messengers to John saying, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.” We know John was executed by Herod Antipas. Could anyone who witnessed the birth of John to Elizabeth and Zechariah have imagined how he would live, work, and die? What then will this child become?
While John’s earthly demise seems bleak, he was the receiver of the same grace, healing, and salvation that Jesus, through HIS death, resurrection, and ascension promises us. John is an example to those of us who have found ourselves under these arches asking ‘how in the world did I end up here?’ Like John, we have received a call to bear witness to the Word of God that has been made known to us through Jesus. While we may not die a martyr’s death, we are called to ‘give our lives’ and live a martyr’s life; to proclaim the truth that is transforming our lives, transfiguring our pain, and revealing our true nature and identity as God’s beloved people. If we follow John’s example, this is what WE will become: heralds of the truth, proclaimers of peace, restorers of hope, pointing to the one who is making us whole.
Blessed John the Baptist, whom we remember today.
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