Today, the Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist. Apart from Jesus and Mary, only the birth of John the Baptist is celebrated by the Church in its liturgy. The day’s readings illustrate that the coming of the Messiah would be preceded by a forerunner, whose birth would bring joy to his barren parents. The way that the events, before and after the birth of John, are described in Luke’s gospel, shows that John’s birth is a turning point in the history of salvation: the beginning of the long awaited time of salvation.
The first reading from the prophet Isaiah describes the prophetic mission of “The Servant”. This text is identified as the second of the four servant songs found in the book of Isaiah. In these songs, the identity of the servant remains a mystery. It could refer either to an individual – Isaiah himself – or refer collectively, to the nation of Israel. In this song, the servant speaksto the nations of the world, describing his call and commission. He was chosen and commissioned for the divine mission, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”
In the historical context of the Babylonian Exile, which this part of the book addresses, the prophet brings to the people of Israel a message of consolation and hope, indicating that the time of their liberation is at hand. Heunderstands that the people in captivity should be consoled, not chastised; their faith in the one true God should be sustained and nourished, not further tested. Therefore, the primarily prophetic mission of the servant, is to declare that the Lord God of Israel would soon send them a liberator, who would lead the exiles homeward, towards Jerusalem. The servant will further announce, the coming restoration of Israel as the people of God. However, it appears that the servant’s mission has failed, at least in part. He laments, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”. Despite that apparent failure, aware of his calling, the servant places his confidence in the Lord. Therefore, the song of the servant ends by redefining the mission of the servant. The initial failure did not terminate his mission. On the contrary, it made the mission even greater, as the servant is now sent forth as “a light to the nations”, so that God’s salvation might shine on all peoples, and not only on Israel. This shows that the God of Israel is now extending his sovereignty beyond Israel, and embracing other nations of the earth. The servant’s prophetic mission therefore, is to make known the rule of the Lord, not onlyto Israel, but also to the whole world.
The second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, focuses on the role of John the Baptist in heralding the salvation of Israel in Jesus Christ. This text is a part of Paul’s speech in the synagogue of Antioch in Pisidia, where he underlines how God sent forth his messenger, John the Baptist, to prepare for the coming of his Son. John’s call for personal conversion, through baptism, was a means to restore the people of Israel to God, their creatorand saviour.
To bring home this divine message, Paul retells a part of Israel’s history to his Jewish audience, revealing the authentic meaning of that sacred story. He shows how God chose David, a man after his own heart, while rejecting the haughty Saul. Looking far ahead in time, God made an eternal covenant with David, which would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. John was a prophetic messenger whose mission was to reveal Jesus’ messianic role and identity. His baptism of repentance awakened the sinful conscience of the people of his time, who were invited to prepare themselves to behold the coming salvation of God in Jesus. In short, for Paul, John the Baptist is the final herald of the new and climactic period of salvation, that begins with John and is fulfilledin Jesus.
The Gospel reading narrates the three co-related events concerning John the Baptist – his birth, circumcision and the name-giving. The birth of a child in any culture brings great joy. The Jewish people valued the birth of a child as God’sgift to the family. Circumcision was the rite of admission of a male child into the people of God. A Jewish boy would be incorporated into Israel by his circumcision. Similarly, naming of a child was a very significant ceremony in the Jewish culture. Names in the ancient Jewish society reflected a person’s character, mission and identity.
The birth of a son, to the revered Jewish priest and his wife, was good news not only for the parents, but also to the neighbours and relatives, who were gathered in the house of Zechariah. However, those gathered did not want to accept the name John, proposed by Elizabeth. Traditionally, a Jewish first-born son, would be named afterhis father or grandfather. A girl would be named after her mother or grandmother. Therefore, one can understand the eagerness of the people to name the boy as Zechariah.
Elizabeth, being a woman, was not supposed to give her opinions publicly. Yet, she disrupted the naming ceremony and also a cherished Jewish tradition, by insisting that the boy’s name be John. This was then confirmed by Zechariah himself, who wrote that the boy’s name should indeed be John. The name “John” literally means “God is gracious”, indicating that this child was destined to reveal God’s graciousness to the people as a part of the already pre-destined plan of God. The people who heard about the birth of John, and his name, treasured the event in their hearts, and wondered the about the destinyof the child.
True to his name, John the Baptist, would became a prophetic messenger, a herald of God’s graciousness. The first reading highlights that there are those chosen by God to bear good news of God’s salvation. Paul firmly placed John the Baptist in the history of God’s mission to bring salvation into the world, the mission which John faithfully fulfilled. The Gospel reading confirms that John’s birth and naming was intentional, he was to become God’s messenger, sent to make way for Jesus. The celebration of John’s birth contains a powerful reminder about God’s salvific designs, carried out through people like John. The psalmist who recognizes God’s plan for his own life, invites all to praise God for their own call, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
On the Solemnity of the nativity of John the Baptist,the Liturgy of the Wordsummons us to meditate on the role and mission of John the Baptist, who was the herald of the Messiah. The word herald means the one who announces, proclaims, shouts, one who is a diplomatic envoy, a representativeor a messenger. In African culture the word is often used, especially in the rural areas where the chief or the paramount chief communicates with his people through a herald. This person must be one who has pledged his allegiance to the king or chief, and sworn to communicate the king or chief's message faithfully. Another duty of this person is to prepare the way for the king or chief, before he arrived to meet his people. These heralds use an instrument or an object in their work. Thus, they would blow a trumpet, or beat drums, or sound horns. They can also carry written messages. Their work reminds us of John the Baptist's work. As we celebrate John’s coming into the world, we are reminded that heralds need to be faithful, humble, and visible, so that the message they carry can be both visible and credible. Today, we Christians are the heralds of the good news of Jesus. John heralded Jesus before Jesus came into the world. Today, we herald Jesus after he has ascended to the Father. We are heralds of Jesus’ words and deeds to ourworld.
John the Baptist was faithful to his mission. He did not stray away from it even if it required living in the desert, and speaking tough words calling for repentance and conversion. He often used hard language to call people back to God. It is difficult to speak hard words calling someone to change. Often, we prefer to be silent, or to speak vaguely, when it comes to correcting others. As Christians, we are, however, required to speak harsh words, against injustice, abuse, corruption, and hypocrisy, that affects our nations, communities, and even families. Being a faithful herald of Jesus means being a courageous speaker of difficult truths.
John the Baptist can also teach us about humility. A herald does not announce or proclaim what he or she wants, but only that which has been entrusted to them. A herald is a representative of someone higher in authority. Therefore, to be a good herald oneneeds humility, to accept the authority of the one from whom the message comes. As Christians we first need to learn about the message we are to carry – Jesus’ message. Before we become heralds, we first must be learners. This requires that we listen to Jesus, by studying his word and life. We must know the message, before we can proclaimit.
Finally, the herald must be visible. John was known for his wild appearance that attracted attention. Christians must likewise be visible, but not through their wild appearance, or through wearing fancy clothes. The visibility of Christians consists in their testimony to Jesus through their lifestyle. Going to Church, many Christians pay more attention to the way they look than to what they represent. Being heralds of Christ, is not for us a matter of being loud and visible by blasting music, loud singing and fancy dress. Christ will be heralded by us through the powerful testimony of our words and deeds, the testimony based on Christ’s life, whichwe imitate and carry out in the world.