Luke 1: 57–66, 80
Luke introduces his gospel narrative of Jesus with the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist. In prior verses related to our passage, we learn that a priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have no children, both being well advanced in years. While Zechariah is performing his priestly duty in the sanctuary of the temple, an angel appears and says to him that Elizabeth will bear a son who was to be called John. But because Zechariah did not believe, and questioned the angel, he became unable to speak. After Elizabeth did give birth to a son, Zechariah wrote on a tablet, “John is his name.” Immediately his tongue was freed and he spoke, blessing God. The child (whose name means “Yahweh has shown favor”) grew and became strong in spirit, for he was to become a prophet of the Most High.
The unbreakable bond between the Jewish people and the people of the new covenant in God’s plan of salvation is clearly evident in today’s feast. It is from the Jewish people that John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus are born so that the tender mercy of God will visit all people. It is from the Jewish people that the church receives the revelation of the most fundamental truths of faith. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, the church continues to draw “sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles.”
The most fundamental truth from which we draw sustenance is that God is present in human history as one who extends to us the favor of merciful love. We also learn from the Jewish people that the mystery of divine presence is beyond comprehension. The “I AM” of the divine name is a name beyond names (Exodus 3: 14 and John 8: 58). A child born of aged Abraham and Sarah or a bush that burns but is not consumed before Moses signals a presence beyond human understanding and control.
It is precisely because the mystery of the divine presence is beyond comprehension that the decision to trust or not to trust is inevitable for every one of us. Zechariah, upon hearing the outlandish words of the Lord’s angel, did not trust and became mute, unable to speak a word (Luke 1: 20). Luke immediately afterward tells us that the Virgin Mary, too, was not able to understand the promise of the Lord’s angel. However, her response “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1: 34) is asked out of trust, not out of doubt. The mystery even of human friendship can deal with a thousand difficulties and questions that are asked out of trust, but is deeply wounded by even one question asked out of doubt.
To receive the gift of recognizing the divine presence through faith calls forth a wholehearted response. The essence of that response is not only to trust, but also to bless God with praise and gratitude. When Zechariah wrote on the tablet “John is his name” immediately his mouth was opened and he spoke a blessing “because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1: 68–79). Mary’s canticle of praise and gratitude in response to the favor of divine presence is one of the most beautiful blessings of the entire biblical tradition (Luke 1: 46–55).
Today’s feast celebrating the birth of John the Baptist reminds us to pray again for the faith to recognize the divine presence in our lives, to trust in God’s tender mercy with an undivided heart, and to bless God always and everywhere with a glad and grateful heart. Further, in the difficult circumstances that life brings to us all, only as a grateful expression of trust that God’s will is to love us can we with confidence pray, “Thy will be done.”
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.