The Nativity of St John the Baptist (24 June 2018)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:57-66 & 80 – NRSV)
Joseph Fitzmyer notes that “the OT atmosphere is unmistakable in the recounting of the birth and attendant joy”. (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 373.) Thus the reference to Rebekah’s giving birth to Jacob and Esau: “When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb” (Genesis 25:24).
There are strong parallels between Jesus and John drawn by Luke. However, the birth of John here is given much less attention than the birth of Jesus in Luke 2:1-20. Joseph Fitzmyer writes specifically of the birth of John: “The birth of John the Baptist is recounted by Luke with two nuances. The event manifests the favor or mercy that Yahweh shows to his people in removing from Elizabeth the stigma of barrenness, a special burden for her as the wife of a Jerusalem priest. It also emphasizes the manifestation of God’s mercy in playing on the name of John, Yĕhôḥānān, ‘Yahweh has shown favor’. The grace that he thus manifests to his people Israel favors not only Elizabeth but will be given to the people as a whole. With the birth of John the promise made to Zechariah is fulfilled. This child, born to barren parents, becomes the source of joy to neighbors and relatives, as the angel had predicted.” Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 372.)
We can note a second contrast: Whereas John is born at home, surrounded by rejoicing and expressions of wonder (vv. 58, 63–66), Jesus is born away from home, with a manger for his crib, and only his parents and some shepherds to greet him (Luke 2:1–20).
On the eighth day: Luke has told us that Zechariah and Elizabeth are observant Jews – see 1:6. That is, they observe Torah – see see Genesis 17:12 (“Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring.”) and Lev 12:3 (“On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”)
Fear came over all their neighbors: The use of the reference to “fear” in the Bible must be carefully read. In the Psalms it is more commonly something like “awe”. The idea of “fear” – the Greek verb is generally phobeō – recurs in Luke’s Gospel. Sometimes the English translations vary – below I am giving the NRSV translations:
• Zechariah was “terrified” (tarassō) when he saw the angel (1:12);
• Mary is encouraged by the angel not to be “afraid” (phobeō) (1:30);
• the shepherds were “terrified” (phobeō) when they saw the angel (2:9);
• Jesus tells Simon not to be “afraid” (phobeō) (5:10);
• “fear” (phobeō) seizes the disciples and onlookers when Jesus raises the widow’s son (7:16);
• when Jesus stilled the storm on lake they were “afraid” (phobeō) (8:25);
• when the people saw that Jesus had healed the Gerasene demoniac, they were “afraid” (phobeō) (8:35);
• on the Mount of Transfiguration the disciples were “terrified” (phobeō) (9:34).
And in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles the theme continues to recur:
• “awe” (phobeō) came upon everyone who witnessed the signs and wonder of the Apostles (2:43);
• great “fear” (phobeō) – mentioned twice here – seized the onlookers when Ananias dropped dead in their midst (5:5); soon after his conversion, Paul went up to Jerusalem and the disciples were “afraid” (phobeō) of him (9:26);
• the people of Ephesus were “awestruck” by the miracles of Paul (19:17).
In today’s Gospel – Luke 1:57-66 & 80 – we hear a very concrete and particular expression of the divine order. It is nowhere better expressed than in the giving of the name: “he is to be called John” – spoken first by Elizabeth then reiterated by Zechariah. The name means “Yahweh has shown favour”. What is unfolding here, in a particular historical situation, is God’s order!
The human family for millennia recognized the divine order of the world. Our word “cosmos” comes from the Greek word kosmos, meaning “order”. It is the opposite of chaos, which comes from the Greek word khaos, meaning “vast abyss” or “void”. Whereas cosmos implies order, chaos implies disorder. We refer to the world as a cosmos, not a chaos. Why? Indeed, one of the most obvious facts of our world, is order. We could not, for example, have science if there was not order.
Yet, “between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries” we started to think differently. We became “.... assured of (our) intellectual capacity to comprehend and control nature, and altogether less dependent on an omnipotent God. This emergence of the modern mind, rooted in the rebellion against the medieval Church and the ancient authorities, and yet dependent upon and developing from both these matrices, took the three distinct and dialectically related forms of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. These collectively ended the cultural hegemony of the Catholic Church in Europe and established the more individualistic, skeptical, and secular spirit of the modern age”. (Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View, Ballantine Books, 1991, 282.)
The modern mind has largely forgotten God. Such forgetfulness makes us vulnerable to a deep and destructive sense of meaninglessness. The order of the world, according to the modern mind, has no particular meaning or purpose. As a result, what purpose or meaning can our lives have? What basis do we have for discerning right and wrong, good and evil?
This is not a reason to try and recover the world before the many useful inventions and discoveries of modern science. Nor should we blame those inventions and discoveries for the huge challenges that face the human family. For example, if I become addicted to social media, I should not blame my smart phone. I must choose. I am responsible and accountable.
Recognizing – and seeking to obey – the divine order, is most helpful to our wellbeing. A sense of vocation, of being here for a reason, is in accord with reality. Developing that sense of vocation and discerning just how I am to respond, is a life’s work. It requires daily commitment to the awareness and acceptance of God’s promise: “I am with you!” No, God is not a puppeteer or a big magician who will sort everything out for us. Flannery O’Connor, one of America’s leading short story writers in the twentieth century, puts it nicely: ”Don’t let me think dear God that I was anything but the instrument of your story.” (Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 11.)