The language of the readings on this feast of the birth of John the Baptist is strongly focused on maternal imagery: Isaiah speaks of being called to his prophetic ministry and being made a servant of the Lord while still in utero. The Psalmist writes how he was knit together by God in his mother’s womb. St. Luke for his part begins his account today focusing more on Elizabeth than the son whom she bears and names; and even the very idea of the rite of baptism we associate with John is reminiscent of birth and new life.
Elizabeth was truly heroic in recognizing the gift God had given her and rejoicing over it; she was attuned to the mystery that often accompanies our walk with the Lord more so than her husband Zechariah. To note this is not to repeat the old saw that women are more emotive and men are more coolly rational—that is patronizing and just plain wrong. It might however give us a good response to the question “What, then, will this child be?” asked by those who witnessed the events of John’s early life (Luke 1:66).
The son of a father who was faithful to his religious beliefs yet had difficulty accepting the Lord’s surprising ways, and a mother who, though equally surprised as her husband, responded to the unexpected with love and welcoming spirit, John showed evidence of both of his parents’ influence during his lifetime. Like his father he did not fully understand what God was doing through John’s kinsman Jesus and to the end of his life he remained a baffled, if loyal, herald of the Lord (see Matt 11: 2-19; Luke 7:18-35; John 3:22-30). Like his mother John was fearless in the face of uncertainty, hopeful in moments of difficulty, and devoted without compromise to the one he was called to serve.
We all combine elements of goodness and elements of ambiguity from our parents into our own personalities. By the grace of God, our parents’ instruction and example, and our efforts to be a good steward of those gifts we bring forth from them the sum total of our own lives. Keeping with the theme of parental influences, we can turn to the names of John the Baptist’s father and mother to find some inspiration as to how parental blessings can be handed-on to the next generation, and wounds can be healed.
The name of John’s father Zechariah means “God remembers me”; John gained from his father the fidelity to stand by Jesus and point him out to others at the risk of his own life, remembering that even if he did not comprehend what God was going to accomplish in Christ, God’s ways and thoughts were above man’s. His mother’s name “Elizabeth” means “my God has sworn an oath”, or more smoothly, “my God is faithful”. The faithfulness God showed to both Elizabeth and John was reflected in their commitment to Mary and Jesus respectively, upholding Mary in her moment of great need, and bravely proclaiming Jesus as the long-awaited messiah.
On this feast when the Church marks the birth of one of our greatest saints and leads us to think of the contributions of his parents to his ministry, we do well to reflect on our own parents and the gifts they handed on to us (and perhaps the crosses), asking God to grant us the strength to pass on to our descendants freely the beautiful gifts we received freely, and to forgive any wounds we encountered along the way. Doing so, we will give a Christ-centered response to the question our parents asked about us at our birth long ago—“What, then, will this child be?”—and like John the Baptist we will be doing our part to bequeath our discipleship of Jesus unto the next generation.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.