Commentary to the feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist
A Courageous Witness of the Light
The cult of the Virgin Mary began to rise and develop in Jerusalem in the V century. A century earlier, in the IV century, the cult of John the Baptist was so widespread as to be considered universal.
The people paid tribute with an extraordinary veneration to this saint. He is the most represented in the art of all ages; there is no altarpiece, no group of saints in which he does not appear. He is covered with the characteristic camel’s hide, the belt around his waist and holding a stick that ends in the shape of a cross.
He is the patron of countless dioceses; shrines and churches are dedicated to him, beginning with the “mother of all” churches, St. John Lateran, founded by Constantine. The name John—translated in every language—is the most common name in the world. Many cities and countries were named after him (128 in Italy, 213 in France).
The Baptist is also loved by the Muslims. They named the famous Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, a symbol of interfaith dialogue, after him. How do we explain this sympathy?
The Baptist is not renowned as a miracle worker—this is, in general, a prerogative, which makes the saints popular. Whoever wants to obtain graces does not appeal to him, but to more powerful intercessors. So there are other reasons for such devotion.
The first reason is certainly Jesus’ praise of him: “When you went out to the desert, what did you expect to see? A reed swept by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? People who wear fine clothes live in palaces. What did you really go out to see? A prophet? Yes, indeed, and even more than a prophet. I tell you this: no one greater than John the Baptist has come forward from among the sons of women” (Mt 11:7-11).
Then, the simple people admired his austerity of life and his courage not to bend his head in front of the powerful. He defended the truth and justice with his life.
Finally, it should be said that it was mainly the monks who popularized his figure. Since the beginning of the fourth century, they populated the Judean desert where the Baptist had spent his life. They considered him one of them, a model of ascetic life and for this, they spread the cult.
The choice of his feast day—celebrated, since the time of St. Augustine, on the 24th of June—is linked to the summer solstice, the day when the sun reaching its zenith begins to set along the horizon. To believers, the decline of sunlight recalled the availability of the Baptist to disappear, to give the place to one who was greater than him. After recognizing in Jesus the expected messiah, he confided to his disciples: “My joy is now full. It is necessary that he increases but that I decrease” (Jn 3:29-30).
“Great are those who know how to step aside after fulfilling their mission.”
First Reading: Isaiah 49:1-6
“Servant of the Lord” is the title of the highest honor that the Old Testament reserves to some prominent figures in the history of Israel: Moses, Samuel, David, the prophets, the men of God who have put their lives at the complete disposal of the Lord.
In the second part of the book of Isaiah, a mysterious, anonymous person is introduced. Biblical scholars ascribed him as Servant of the Lord because when God speaks of him or spoke to him, he calls him my servant. God considers him the Servant par excellence, the man who is more faithful than any other.
Today’s passage opens with the monolog of this “servant” who solemnly exhorts, who appeals to a vast audience, to the Mediterranean islands: “Listen to me, O islands, pay attention, peoples from distant lands” (v. 1). He turns his message to all peoples inhabiting the lands bordering the “vast sea.”
The work which is about to begin does not originate from his own thought; it is the answer to the vocation he has received from above (v. 1). As it had happened to Jeremiah (Jer 1:5)—and as it will happen to the Baptist in the New Testament (Lk 1:15) and to Paul (Gal 1:15)—God has chosen him from the mother’s womb, and explained to him that, in carrying out his mission, he will have no other weapon available, and cannot count on other force except that of the word (v. 2).
Nothing is weaker than the word—inconsistent vibration, sound that disappears without leaving a trace in the air—but the Lord has promised to make it effective as a sharp sword that strikes one who is close, and as a polished arrow that leaves no way out even to one who believes himself invulnerable because he is far away.
He did not immediately begin to carry out the task entrusted to him. There was a period of waiting, a time when the Lord has prepared, keeping it hidden, as a weapon in his quiver, as a dagger in his hand.
We wonder: who is this “servant”? Verse 3 seems to identify him with the people, with Israel—when the oracle was pronounced—who were in a foreign land, in Babylon, convinced that the mission that the Lord had entrusted to him had ended in failure. Like the people, even the “Servant” confesses his disappointment: “I have labored in vain, and spent my strength for nothing.” Apparently, at least, all my efforts were in vain (v. 4).
After a quick reminder of the vocation “from the maternal womb,” the Lord addresses his “servant.” Here, he is clearly referred to as a single person. Instead of inviting him to resign due to the previous failure, he renews the commission to “bring together Israel,” that is, to bring to him the divided kingdoms of north and south. Then he assigns a new task, immensely more challenging: “I make you the light of the nations, that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth” (vv. 5-6).
How can he trust a so extraordinary undertaking to one who failed in the previous attempt to “bring Israel together”? And yet—says the prophet—it is through him that the Lord “will be known” (v. 3).
We will never know about whom the prophet thought when he said this prophecy. But today we are able to identify the person who fulfilled the prophecy: it is Jesus of Nazareth. He is the “servant” who, for more than thirty years, in obscurity, prepared himself for his mission. For three years he has tried in vain to “reunite Israel”, “just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Mt 23:37) and who ended his days on a cross, like a slave, crushed by the powers of this world.
His story seemed ended for good when, at the entrance of his tomb, a huge, immovable rock was rolled. Instead, from that grave God has brought out the life, the light and the salvation that will reach all nations, “to the ends of the earth”.
As the “Servant of the Lord,” the Baptist, too, was chosen from the womb of his mother and was filled with the power of God (Lk 1:15). He had an important mission to fulfill: to prepare the way for the servant who was to be the light of the nations.
Like him, every person has, from the maternal womb, a vocation, an identity to realize: that which from eternity is in the heart of God. Those who accept his plans, become his servant. Whoever invents other projects is at the margins of history: nothing will remain of his work in the new world that God is creating.
To be devotees of the Baptist means internalizing his loyalty, imitating his courage and humility to realize the work that has been entrusted to him or her.
Second Reading: Acts 13:22-26
We are at Pisidia of Antioch, in Asia Minor, during the first missionary journey. On the Sabbath, Paul—who went to the synagogue to attend the liturgy of the Word—after the readings, is sent to speak. He gets up, makes a gesture with his hand and gives a long speech.
He begins by presenting the works done by the Lord in favor of his people: the liberation from Egypt, the forty years in the wilderness, the conquest of the Promised Land, the choice of the first king, Saul. Our reading starts at this point.
Saul was unfaithful (and perhaps Paul admits it reluctantly because this king belonged to his own tribe—the tribe of Benjamin—and also because he had inherited the name) and then God chose David, the great king, the faithful executor of his will, the figure of the Messiah. From his seed God, according to the promise, drew for Israel a savior, Jesus.
Here Paul introduces the figure of John the Baptist—of whom he speaks quite broadly—because he is the last of the prophets and is at the end of the period of waiting, and marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the promises (vv. 24-25).
Of his work as a precursor, some essential moments are remembered. First of all, the preaching of a baptism of repentance. He addressed the invitation to change the way of thinking and acting, to be involved in the salvation that the Messiah was about to render, to “all the people of Israel.”
Then his decision to dissipate any misunderstanding on his person: “I am not what you think I am.”
Finally, the testimony in favor of who is greater than him. Has the figure of this “faithful servant,” who has also surprised Paul, anything to teach us today? We find the answer in the last verse of the reading: “Brothers, children and descendants of Abraham, and you also who fear God, it is to you that this message of salvation has been sent” (v. 26).
It is “at the end of his mission”—says Paul (v. 25)—that the Baptist came to grasp the meaning of the task he was called to perform. He was the first to go through the process of conversion that he proposed to others. He, too—like everybody—was first seized by doubts, had misgivings, was taken aback by the innovative message and the unexpected behavior of the young master of Nazareth. One day he even sent some of his disciples to ask him: “Are you the one we are expecting or should we wait for another?” (Lk 7:19).
Then he understood; he changed his criteria for judgment and recognized him as the Messiah of God, as the one to whom he was not worthy to untie the sandals.
Anyone who wants to recognize the true Messiah of God is called to embark on the journey of conversion that the Baptist has undergone.
Gospel: Luke 1:57-66,80
How many promises the prophets did! In the difficult moments of the history of Israel, when the people were oppressed, disappointed and discouraged, some of them, in the name of God, always uttered words of consolation and hope, announcing the imminent release, promised a new era.
Their predictions, kept devoutly in Holy Books, were read and meditated upon especially when the events of history placed a strain on the faith when it could insinuate doubt that the Lord had forgotten his promises.
Israel has continued to “remember” and to wait. She “remembered” to have the strength to persist in faith, to continue to believe in the fidelity of her God.
Today’s Gospel presents the event which marked the dawn of a new day, the transition between the time of the “memory” of the promises and the time of their realization.
In the first part (vv. 57-58) the birth of John the Baptist is narrated. Anyone contemplating the unfolding of a new life is fascinated by the wonderful laws of nature that govern the birth of a child. Believer and non-believer share this surprise but the believer does not just enjoy this enchantment but goes further and questions the meaning of each birth. One wonders what sublime Mind has planned this event and what dreams he raises on each creature.
Luke is a believer; he writes fifty years after the events and is able to assess, in the light of the Spirit, the role that the figure of the Baptist had in the history of salvation. He recalls John’s birth and interprets it as an act of “mercy” of the Lord on Elizabeth.
What does “mercy” mean and who were the recipients of grace granted by God to Elizabeth? Only an embittered married couple? The term “mercy” in the Bible does not mean God’s compassion for unworthy and contemptible people but indicates his attention, his tender love for anyone who needs his help.
In the barren womb of Elizabeth the evangelist sees depicted the sterility of Israel and the condition of death in which the whole humanity lies. The desperate situation from which, without the intervention from above, it is not possible for life to sprout.
The prophets have foreseen this prolific intervention of God and have invited people to rejoice: “Rejoice, O barren women who have not given birth: sing and shout for joy” (Is 54:1).
In the birth of John the Baptist, Luke captures the start of the realization of this prophecy. From the first page of his Gospel, he introduces the theme of joy. On the mouth of the angel God puts the promise to Zechariah: “He will bring joy and gladness to you, and many will rejoice at his birth” (Lk 1:14). He remembers the joy that involved parents, relatives, neighbors and inhabitants of the hill country of Judea at the birthing of Elizabeth. When God enters into human history, he always brings life and joy.
The central part of the reading (vv. 59-66) develops the theme of the child’s name, “on the eighth day they came to attend the circumcision of the child; they wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father.”
It is surprising that Luke wishes to match the time of circumcision with the imposition of the name. He will emphasize this practice for Jesus (Lk 2:21). Yet it does not appear that this was the custom in Israel, where the name was given at birth, not eight days later (Gen 4:1; 21:3; 25:25-26).
The fact that the relatives and neighbors want to name the baby with the name of his father, Zechariah, is also surprising. The tradition was to give the name of the grandfather, not of the father’s. It seems that Luke, more than reporting a fact—in itself rather marginal—is interested to note that, the name “Zechariah” is not suitable for John.
We begin to grasp why the evangelist combines the naming and the circumcision. Circumcision is the sign of belonging to the people of the covenant. With this rite, one belongs to Israel and becomes an heir of the promises that God made to Abraham and his descendants. On the eighth day, therefore, the Baptist becomes an Israelite, like his father.
It is at this point that the name he received gains importance because, among the people of antiquity, the name indicated the person, his condition, his qualities, his fate. “Zechariah” means “God has remembered” or “God remembers” his promises. It is the symbol of Israel, which over the centuries has continued to transmit from father to son “the memory” of the prophecies, without ever seeing the fulfillment.
Now the reason why the Baptist cannot be called “Zachariah” becomes clear. When he becomes a member of the people of Israel, he does not simply give continuity to the lineage and tradition of his father—as the relatives and neighbors think. They have not had the revelation of heaven, but John marks the beginning of the new era. Gone are the days of remembering the promises; for humanity the new day in which the prophecies are fulfilled has dawned.
The angel indicated to Zechariah the name willed by God, “John” (Lk 1:13) which means, “The Lord has given grace, has manifested his goodness, his kindness.”
Zechariah became mute in the temple. On leaving the sanctuary where he had received the announcement of the birth of a child, he was unable to pronounce the blessing. Now his lips are opened and the words he speaks is not about the child, but about the Lord. They are words of blessing; he sings the wonders that he has witnessed: “The Lord has come and redeemed his people… as he promised through his prophets of old” (Lk 1:68-70).
Zechariah represents Israel that, after so many past centuries of “remembering”, is now witness to the faithfulness of God. He sees “from on high as a rising sun, shining on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79). Now he recognizes its benefits and proclaims to all peoples the wonders of his love.
In the last verse (v. 80), the childhood of John is summarized. To each Israelite, the desert recalls a crucial time in its history and awakens emotions and feelings related to the journey from slavery to freedom. It is where his fathers have experienced the protection of God, where they did not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
The Baptist spends his adolescence and youth in the desert. He prepares for his mission assimilating the spiritual riches that his people have accumulated through the desert experience.
In his Gospel, Luke will resume talking about him after having narrated the birth of Jesus: “It was the fifteenth year of the rule of the Emperor Tiberius: when the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the desert” (Lk 3:1).
Here again is John, ready to carry out his mission.