BIRTH OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
Today’s solemnity recalls the last prophet of Israel: John the Baptist, the preacher of the desert that prepares the ways of the Lord. He is the great announcer of salvation that anticipates the mission of Christ, but in his person are also delineated the great traits of the Christian disciple that will continue announcing Christ after Easter. The Baptist is the prototype of whoever gives him or herself with joy and humility to the gospel without looking for privileges and personal advantages. His motto will have to be the emblem of every Christian disciple, “He must increase but I must decrease” (Jn 3,30).
The first reading (Is 49,1-6) is the second song of the servant of Yahweh that in the Christian tradition has been interpreted in a messianic and Christological key. The liturgy, nevertheless, applies it also to John the Baptist. This is nothing strange, that now in the synoptic gospels the figure of the precursor is presented according to the very features of Christ, in the light of the Jewish principle by which “the messenger is like him that sends him”. The Servant of Yahweh, chosen “from his mother’s womb” (Is 49,1) like the Baptist, is a prophet whose vocation is to announce the word of God. His mouth, in effect, has been converted by God into a “sharpened sword” and “shooting arrow” (v. 2; cf. Heb 4,12). As Jeremiah and many other prophets come to experience tiredness, difficulty and the sensation of uselessness in their own mission (v. 4). But precisely in the very moment of crisis and of weakness, when the prophet thought “I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing”, he discovers that “my cause was with the Lord” (v. 4). The protection of God, represented by “the shadow of his hand” and by the “quiver” (v. 2), destroys all perplexity and discouragement. An experience that recalls that of Paul: “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12,1). In that very moment the doubts of his mission are dispelled and the prophet feels that his vocation is renewed mysteriously, in such a way that the horizon of his mission is widened, not only destined for the re-establishment of Israel, but rather that he is changed into a “light of the nations” so that the salvation of God reaches to the ends of the earth (v. 6), precisely as happened with John the Baptist the great prophet and precursor of Christ.
The second reading (Acts 13,22-26) is taken from the long discourse of Paul in Antioch of Pisidia, in which he makes a synthesis of the history of Israel, a history of promises that culminate with the apparition of John the Baptism. Paul underlines fundamentally his role as Precursor that preaching a baptism of repentance prepared the coming of Jesus. John appears in the New Testament with an important mission: to prepare the coming of the kingdom and the ways of the Lord before the imminent apparition of the Messiah. A vocation and a mission that John did not deform nor exalt in a improper way: “I am not the one you imagine me to be; that one is coming after me and I am not fit to undo his sandal” (v. 25). In John the Baptist is shown the value of all vocation and the beauty of a radical fidelity to one’s own mission. Everything in him is oriented to Christ, “the Word of salvation” (v. 26) in function of which all vocation and mission in history exists.
The gospel (Lk 1,57-66.80) narrates the birth of a boy that is totally gift of God, having been born of Elizabeth a sterile mother and of Zechariah, an elderly father (Lk 1,7). Both parents belong fully to the chosen people; Luke describes them as “irreproachable” before God (Lk 1,6). The birth of the child is an even that belongs to the history of Israel, the people of the old covenant, but that at the same time prepares and announces the dawn of the full salvation that is about to arrive. The birth of John is like a living word pronounced by God that resounds more eloquently even with the background of his father Zechariah’s silence, a priest of Israel that remains mute for not trusting totally in the promise of God. The angel that announced to him the birth of a son, in effect, had told him: “And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Lk 1,20). The muteness of Zechariah is broken when his son is born, object of divine promise and the last prophetic word directed by God to Israel. From here the importance given to the “name” of the child in the evangelical account. We know that in the biblical tradition the name indicates the vacation, the mission and the personality of someone. The relatives wanted to name him like his father, Zechariah, in Hebrew “The Lord remembers”, but the mute father asks for a tablet and writes: “John is his name” (v. 63). The name John, Yohanan in Hebrew (“God gives his grace”), indicates contemporaneously the transforming grace of God and the splendor of the transformed person by this grace. From the silence of Zechariah is born the last prophetic word of the Old Covenant, and from the sterility of Elizabeth is born the precursor of the perfect life offered by God to his people.
Having just written the name, Zechariah recuperates his speech and begins to bless God. A blessing that inaugurates the new time of salvation. The neighbors are filled with fear, a fear that is an act of faith before the marvelous actions of the Lord, that is at the same time adoration and praise (Cf. Acts 2,43; 5,5). The same neighbors participate in the grace offered by God in the child, thus “the whole affair was talked about throughout the hill country of Judea” (v. 65). The become missionaries of the grace offered by God, proclaimers of the revealing event of God that prepares the close arrival of the kingdom.
In the end, the evangelist offers us two more notes (v. 80). One referenced to the childhood and adolescence of John that “grew up and his spirit matured” and the other, in relationship to his life and mission: “he lived out in the wilderness until the day he appeared openly to Israel”. From the maternal womb the Baptist, like Jeremiah or the Servant of Yahweh, or Paul himself, is called to a mission that will culminate one day with martyrdom. John is a figure that incarnates the gratitude and entirety of the prophetic vacation, the humility of whoever has been sent and lives in the service of God, and the fidelity and radicalism of whoever assumes his or her vocation and mission with no strings attached nor being two-faced until the ultimate consequences. For this reason, his figure is exemplar and prototype of the Christian disciple called to follow and announce Jesus with his word and his life in a faithful and radical way.