The feast if the birth of John the Baptist is important enough to dislodge the observance of the 12th Sunday of Ordinary time. There are many ways to approach the Scriptures selected for this observance.
Writing in Catholic Women Preach Elizabeth M Stewart identifies with an experience of Elizabeth in the passage from Luke’s Gospel. “However she may have learned of her baby’s name must have been a strong, divine experience, for this experience becomes her conviction. When we know our truths deep down, especially when these truths come from the sacred space in our hearts where God speaks to us, we must speak.
And Elizabeth speaks up. She says no to her community when they insist on naming the baby after his father. His name is to be John. And they don’t believe her. Mute Zechariah then writes the same name on a tablet and they are amazed.
The common sexism of this situation is not lost on women. Many of us have been in positions where we say aloud our ideas and are not heard, and then a man says the exact same thing and it’s brilliant.
I wonder if Elizabeth was hurt. The community honored more the written words of a man (her husband’s) than the spoken words of a woman.”
For my part I have often wondered how and when John ended up in the desert. Luke describes his parents this way: Lk 1,6,7 “Both (Zechariah and Elizabeth) were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child.” His father was a priest, actually ministering in the Temple in Jerusalem when the angel of the Lord appeared to him. Luke amplifies even further: Lk. 1:8,9 “Once when he was serving as priest in his divisions turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense.” When John is born fear comes upon the neighbors and they discussed all these matters throughout the hill country of Judea. The people took them to heart and said: Lk.1:66 “What then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”
What indeed “will this child be?” How and when did he end up in the desert? This is such a radical break from Jerusalem, from the temple, from his father as a priest. Was it something dramatic (like the appearance of an angel)? Similar to Jesus we have gaps in the story of John. Luke takes pains to situate the adult John in the time of the Roman Emperor, the governor of Judea, and the tetrarch of Galilee, religiously in the time of two high priests. He doesn’t tell us how or when John ended up in the desert. He skips over this to tell us: Lk 3:3 “..the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” Surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
Each of us was born to two parents. No doubt there are some birth stories that circulate about our birth. Even the best biographers are at a loss to present all the gaps in the lives of their subjects. For us too there are gaps, gaps which perhaps we are selves cannot fill in. But through it all we too have “become” who we are.
John’s preaching attracted crowds. Word of it even got to Jesus. Some thought John was the expected Messiah. The Gospels strain to inform us “not so”. Matthew complicates the matter when he puts the same words in the mouth of John, ( Mt. 3:2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”) and Jesus ( Mt. 4: 17 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”) But though their initial summary preaching is exactly the same, the further amplification of this initial preaching goes in very different directions. The difference culminates when John (from prison according to Matthew) sends his disciples to Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
For me there is puzzlement and disillusionment in the question that John sends with his disciples. Jesus ministry was quite different than that of John. In fact for me there appears to be a lack of continuity. The footnote in the NABr attempts to clarify this: “Jesus identifies John as precisely the person John envisioned Jesus to be: the Elijah who prepares the way for the coming of the day of the Lord.” Not sure I clearly understand that. This I do understand: puzzlement and disillusionment have been part of my life.
So the birth of John and beyond offers us things to contemplate. We can reflect on sexism in our own life and our society. We too can reflect on our birth family, on the question that was posed or presumed at our birth “What then will this child be?” We can ponder what we have become and what we are becoming. When has the hand of the Lord been upon us? John evidently was separated from his family by choice. What are we called to do about the immoral forced separation of children from their families?
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