Commentary on the Gospel of
Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist - Mass during the Day
The mere mention of John the Baptist calls to mind the iconic image of John standing in the River Jordan immersing Jesus in the water. But wait! That wonderful moment has a feast of its own: The Baptism of the Lord! Today’s feast is about something else — not John’s baptizing of Jesus but John’s own birth. This feast celebrates a life that starts small but eventually, by way of God’s loving initiatives and the free response of persons, emerges as one of the key figures in sacred history. So, to celebrate this special life, the church has drawn on a key Servant song from the scroll of Isaiah, then the great Psalm about being nurtured in the womb, then a summary of the good news of God’s mercy from Peter in Acts, and finally the celebration of John’s birth in Luke’s gospel. Taken together, this collection can be a powerful meditation on the mystery of vocation — John’s, and eventually ours.
Isaiah’s song about the Servant speaks of God’s forming him for a mission with worldwide consequences — first to restore the scattered tribes of Israel, and then, as Israel, to be a light to all the nations. We recognize that prophecy to be fulfilled ultimately in the person, words and work of Jesus, and furthered in the life and mission of the church — including us.
The verses from Psalm 139 echo Isaiah’s language in a song of gratitude, which proclaims in wonder, “I was fashioned in the depths of the earth” – a powerful metaphor for the mysterious, hidden fertility of the psalmist’s mother (“You knit me in my mother’s womb”). What a perfect reading to celebrate the healing of Elizabeth’s infertility, whose fruit was baby John.
Luke’s presentation of Peter’s speech in the synagogue of Pisidia (Acts 13) celebrates John’s special place in God’s fulfillment of the promises made to both David and Abraham. Through John, God had prepared Israel to receive the surprising news that the long-awaited Anointed One of Israel turned out to be the rejected prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, raised to transformed life by the Father.
Finally, Luke’s account of the circumcision and naming of Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child, who was so unexpectedly and appropriately named I?ann?s (Greek for the Hebrew Johanan, “God shows mercy”). His simple presence is the very expression of God’s merciful intervention in a situation of sterility (not only biological but social), and begins the fulfillment of Israel’s long-held nurtured hope. Zechariah’s Nunc Dimittis (vv. 68-79) spells all this out. The Lectionary saves that for another day, but it does supply the final verse of the passage: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” God continues the growth that he began in Elizabeth’s sterile womb. Taken together and pondered prayerfully, these remarkable Scripture passages can help us all marvel at how each of us can recognize the graceful interplay of God’s loving initiatives and the opportunities for free response that make up our own emerging stories of vocation, no matter how sterile they may sometimes seem.