Today we pause to reflect on the birth of John the Baptist, which shares significantly in the meaning of Christ’s birth. When June 24 falls on a Sunday, this liturgy replaces that of the standard Sunday in Ordinary Time.
In the breviary, St. Augustine explains the reason for this observance in the following words:
“Apart from the most holy solemnity commemorating our Savior’s birth, the Church keeps the birthday of no other person except that of John the Baptist.* In the case of other saints or of God’s chosen ones, the Church, as you know, solemnizes the day on which they were reborn to everlasting beatitude after ending the trials of this life and gloriously triumphing over the world.
“For all these the final day of their lives, the day on which they completed their earthly service is honored. But for John the day of his birth, the day on which he began this mortal life is likewise sacred. The reason for this is, of course, that the Lord willed to announce to men His own coming through the Baptist, lest if He appeared suddenly, they would fail to recognize Him. John represented the Old Covenant and the Law. Therefore he preceded the Redeemer, even as the Law preceded and heralded the new dispensation of grace.”
*The feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin had not yet been introduced.
1st Reading – Isaiah 49:1-6
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 reading is taken from the second of four “Servant of the Lord” oracles in Isaiah, also known as the Servant Songs. They poetically describe a servant that will bring people to an awareness of God’s power, justice, and love.
This passage was written in the time of the Babylonian exile (587-537 BC). The Israelites are suffering and disillusioned. They had thought that their king, their kingdom, and their temple would be secure forever. Now the temple is destroyed, the kingdom is no more, and the population is living in exile in Babylon. What happened to God’s promise to love and protect the chosen people? What could all of this mean?
Hear me, O coastlands, listen, O distant peoples.
The proclamation is addressed to many peoples across distant lands. This possibly indicates universalism, but later verses show that the tribes of Israel are being gathered, suggesting that this is a summons to Israelites that have been scattered as a result of the exile.
The LORD called me from birth,
God often sets the vocation of his chosen ones before their birth. Examples include Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5), John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), Jesus (Luke 1:31), and Saint Paul (Galatians 1:15).
from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
“Gave me my name” may indicate consecration for a special office, as in Jeremiah 1:5. He has been formed in the womb precisely for this mission.
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.
The servant was made ready and fit for the preaching of God’s word. His prophetic message will be sharp, cutting — but he is hidden by God until the appropriate time arrives.
You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.
The actual identity of the servant is unclear and long the topic of debate among scholars. Being named in his mother’s womb seems to indicate an individual person (perhaps Isaiah himself), but this explicit mention of Israel as the servant seems to refer to the entire nation. However, the later mention of Israel in verse 5 seems to distinguish the servant from Israel, so some regard the word “Israel” here as a gloss.
Regardless of the specific identity of the servant, these are words of intense hope. The exiles are being assured that they are still God’s people, they haven’t been forgotten, and there is a purpose to their present suffering.
The chosen people, spoken of as a single person, have been God’s chosen people since before their birth.
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.
Although the people may feel that their suffering has been in vain, this is not true. God is going to use the suffering of the people to accomplish something wonderful. Through Israel’s suffering, Israel will be brought back to the Lord, and as we will see, Israel will become a light to the nations.
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;
Recall that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Genesis 35:10). Both refer to the nation of God’s chosen people. By referring to an in-gathering of Israel, the passage presumes that the people are scattered.
Here, the servant seems to be distinguished from Israel — because if the servant is Israel, how can the servant nation have a mission to bring itself back to itself?
That being said, most commentators urge us to lay aside the search for the servant’s exact identity and focus instead on his characteristics and his mission:
- The servant has been chosen by God, who loves him most specially,
- He has all the main qualities of a prophet, and
- He must gather and influence his compatriots so as to enlighten them.
and I am made glorious in the sight of the LORD, and my God is now my strength!
The spectacular return of the scattered exiles and their re-establishment as a people will be seen as the work of God; the accomplishment of the mission will make the servant glorious in the sight of the Lord.
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;
The twelve tribes of Israel were named after the sons of Jacob. It was these tribes who settled the Promised Land after the exodus from Egypt.
I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
A mission that began as the restoration of one nation has been broken open to include the salvation of all. This is a fulfillment of the promise to Abram in Genesis 12:3: All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.
It is remarkable that a nation struggling with its own survival after being defeated at the hands of a powerful enemy should have a God concerned with the salvation of all, presumably including the nation at whose hands it suffered — yet this is exactly what “a light to the nations” suggests.
2nd Reading – 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 today’s second reading, Paul is giving a speech to a group of Jewish people and potential Gentile converts. In order to place his preaching within their tradition, Paul provides an overview of the roles of King David and John the Baptist in salvation history, as the audience would have been familiar with both of these men.
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.
When the prophet Samuel was searching for a possible king, David was a virtual unknown, even within his own family. The youngest of seven sons, he was never even considered as a candidate (see 1 Samuel 13:14 and 16:1-13).
This is yet another example of how God uses the seemingly insignificant to confound the prominent; the weak to confound the strong.
From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.
David consolidated the tribes of Israel into the monarchy and established the royal dynasty from which the Messiah would come.
John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel;
When the appointed time came for the Messiah, God sent John the Baptist to further prepare the world for his coming.
Although both John and Jesus preached repentance, their fundamental message was quite different. John announced the “one is coming” (Mark 1:1-4); Jesus declared that “this is the time of fulfillment” (Mark 1:15).
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.”’
Although John attracted many followers, he was never in competition with Jesus. John knew that he was only the precursor, not the long-awaited one.
The measure of John’s greatness was his willingness to draw people to his message, and then step aside and point them to another. His legacy is marked with deep prophetic insight and profound humility.
“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.”
From his conception, John was called to prepare the way for Jesus, John’s savior and the savior of the world.
Gospel – 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.
Our reading today recounts the birth, circumcision, and naming of John the Baptist. Earlier in Chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel, the priest Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel, who informed him that despite his wife Elizabeth’s barrenness and the advanced age of both of them, she will bear a son, and his name would be John.
The angel also told Zechariah:
“You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him 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” (Luke 1:15-17).
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.
Elizabeth had been long barren and was now old. John’s birth is seen as extraordinary, even miraculous, and is attributed to God’s mercy.
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,
Because Zechariah and Elizabeth are faithful Jews, they have their son circumcised on the eighth day, just as the law prescribes (Leviticus 12:4). In addition to the actual circumcision, the ceremony included prayers and the naming of the child.
Note that it is the neighbors and relatives who determine the child’s name, an indication that the community — and not just the immediate family — had a stake in this child. The practice of neighbors naming a child wasn’t unheard of at the time (see Ruth 4:17).
but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”
Elizabeth opposes the name offered by the relatives and neighbors, and asserts that the baby’s name will be John, which means “God is gracious.”
She is, of course, obeying the instructions that the angel gave her husband.
But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”
The relatives presume that the boy’s identity is linked with his family, but his parents know that he is chosen, set apart for a special mission.
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.
When the angel Gabriel informed Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear him a son, Zechariah asked, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Whether as a sign for Zechariah or a consequence for his lack of faith, he is rendered speechless “until the day these things take place.”
The fact that the neighbors now make signs to Zechariah indicates that he may have been deaf as well as mute. His confirmation of the seemingly random name amazes everyone.
It’s unclear why they wouldn’t have consulted with Zechariah about the name from the start, via writing. He may not have been of sound mind, perhaps because his condition had been the result of a stroke or palsy — if true, his sudden coherence would add to the sense of amazement.
Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.
Zechariah’s speech was restored when he complies with the instructions God sent him through the angel. Note that he doesn’t seem to harbor any resentment about being struck mute: his first words are to bless God.
Baby John is but eight days old and has already been a source of tremendous blessings for both of his parents.
Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea.
The neighbors are frightened by what has transpired, not because they did not believe, but because they believed and trembled — whereas they should have believed and triumphed. This displays how greatly the people had strayed from their appointed course as God’s chosen people, and how in need they were for John’s message of repentance (and Jesus’ messiahship).
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 people did not know what to make of what had happened, but they were convinced that God had great designs for this child.
This question is answered by the canticle of Zechariah, not included in today’s reading, in which he both blesses the Lord and explains the significance of his son’s birth (Luke 1:68-79).
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.
In preparation for his prophetic mission, John went to live in the wilderness — the place traditionally considered a testing ground — in order to strengthen his spirit for the task ahead. This is not a sand desert but rather a barren steppe with bushes and basic vegetation. It contains many caves which can provide shelter.
When John reaches adulthood, his will be the voice of one crying out in the desert preparing the way of the Lord.
Connections and Themes
Seasonal change. Some of the early Christian writings tell us that the celebration of Jesus’ birth was placed on the winter solstice, when (in the northern hemisphere) the days begin to lengthen. This feast, six months in advance of Christmas, also falls on a solstice, when the days begin to shorten. This corresponds with John’s declaration, “He must increase while I must decrease” (John 3:30). This is a time of seasonal change, and a celebration of a birth, a new beginning — hopes are high; something new is about to happen.
Transition between ages. John the Baptist heralds the new eschatological age of fulfillment, but he himself does not participate in this new age; he brought the people to Jesus, but he never actually became one of his disciples. He used the attention he garnered to point out Jesus, who apparently was so plain that he might have otherwise been overlooked. John’s prophetic destiny is reminiscent of the servant in the first reading from Isaiah: his message was a sharp-edged sword, a polished arrow. He was the voice that cried in the wilderness: Behold, he is coming!
The last prophet. The circumstances of John’s conception and birth had been extraordinary. Like many prophetic figures, including the servant in Isaiah’s oracle, John had been chosen from his mother’s womb — the hand of the Lord was on him. As Paul points out in the second reading, John was the last prophet that called for the people to prepare for the messianic age, giving him the distinct privilege of seeing the one that other prophets foretold but did not see. With great humility, John opened the door to the future and then stepped back so that Jesus’ message might call us forth.