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Feast of the birth of John the Baptist

Fr. Fernando Armellini - Tue, Jun 23rd 2020

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, "What, then, will this child be?" For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.


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Greetings to all.

Today we celebrate the feast of the birth of John the Baptist, June 24, the solstice, when the sun begins to diminish and this is the reason why, since the time of St. Augustine (we are at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth century), the feast of the Baptist is celebrated. Precisely because he himself had said: Now I must stay to one side because another light has appeared. And as the sun begins to set, so does the Baptist begin to overshadow because another light has come: Christ. This is the reason why this date was chosen for the celebration of John the Baptist.

You can see behind me the place where tradition considers the birthplace of the Baptist: Ain Karim. Zechariah and Elizabeth lived there and it is there where Mary would have gone to visit her cousin when she found out that in her old age, she was expecting a son, a gift of God for the world. At my back, you can see this city. To my right, you can see the church, considered the birthplace of the Baptist. It is very beautiful this panorama of Ain Karim. In the background, you can also see the city of Jerusalem.

Another important place in this village is the springs of water, which already existed in the time of Jesus and Mary. You can see behind me this well called "The Fountain of the Virgin". It is said that it was there that the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary took place. You can see an old lady and a young one—participants of the group that I took to Israel; this picture intended to reproduce the embrace between Mary and Isabel.

Let us now present the figure of the Baptist and the message that we want to give in this celebration. To see the development of the devotion and cult of the Virgin in Jerusalem, we must wait until the fifth century, with the construction of a church dedicated to Mary. But already since the first century the cult of John the Baptist was already widespread everywhere.

The people always had an extraordinary veneration with this saint. He appears more frequently in the art of all the centuries. There was no altar where the Baptist’s portrait was not clothed with a camel’s skin with a belt at the waist and in his hand the stick ending in the form of a cross. There are many dioceses that have him as a patron, there are sanctuaries... And the most common name in the world is 'John'—because of John the Baptist.

How do we explain so much devotion for this saint? In general, saints are remembered if they perform miracles, but the Baptist is not remembered for this. So how come there is so much popular sympathy for this man? It is very easy to answer why. Let us begin by saying that in the desert of Judah, where the Baptist lived, many monks have begun to live there since the fourth century. It is estimated that in the desert of Judah at one time there were up to 10,000 monks and had as protector, as a symbol, as a model the Baptist who had also lived in that desert.

Let's go to the evangelical text that we have today. The first thing we notice is that the birth of the Baptist is not normal—his mother was sterile, therefore, a human inability to give life; and the intervention of God.

In the Bible, we find this image frequently when the author wants to say that there has been an intervention of God for the gift of a person who has been relevant in the history of the world. To emphasize the work of God it is always said that his parents were old, like Samuel and Samson.

These characters are always presented as born of a couple of elderly parents or a sterile mother. All to show that this person has been given by God to the world. Every child born is a sign of the paternal tenderness of God who gives the world a son or a daughter. Now, this child has had a very particular mission in the history of humankind.

After this intervention of God, continues the evangelical text, it came the name that will be given to the child. "On the eighth day, they went to circumcise him and wanted to call him as his father, Zechariah." It is surprising that Luke makes the time of circumcision coincide with the imposition of the name. He does it also with Jesus.

In fact, that was not the case because the name was given at the time of birth; it was the way the father recognized him as his son and gave him the name. Instead, Luke joins the circumcision with the name. It is also surprising that Luke presented the fact that people expected to give him the name of his father. This was not the tradition, because the tradition was to give the name of the grandfather, not the father.

It seems that Luke, instead of writing a detail—that may be even marginal— he wanted to emphasize that the name of 'Zechariah' did not have to be given to the Baptist. Let's see the reason and understand why the evangelist joins the circumcision with the imposition of the name. Circumcision is the sign of belonging to the people of the covenant. With this rite, one becomes part of Israel, heirs of the promise that God made Abraham and his descendants. Therefore, on the eighth day, the Baptist becomes an Israelite, like his father.

And the name given to this Israelite—we know that the name indicated the person, the mission he should have—is, therefore, something very important. Zechariah ('zahar' - which in Hebrew means 'to remember')—therefore the Lord be remembered; or, the Lord remembers His promises. The word "zahar" appears in the Bible about a hundred times. It happens when God remembers his covenant, he remembers the promises made to Abraham.

Therefore, they wanted to give the Baptist in the name of Zechariah: the Lord remembers. It was to keep alive this certainty that the Lord is faithful to His promises and, therefore, Israel was never to be discouraged under any circumstances of its dramatic history. Israel always remembered: 'zahar'—‘remember', remember that God is faithful, so do not worry. Why, then, this name is interrupted? He is not called Zechariah, because Zechariah is the symbol of Israel that throughout the centuries has continued to transmit from parents to children the remembrance of God's promises, without seeing the result.

Now it's over. There is nothing more to remember. Now it is a matter of seeing. This is why the Baptist cannot be called Zechariah at the moment when he becomes a member of Israel because he not only does not give continuity to the tradition of his father, as the relatives and neighbors think—who did not have the revelation of heaven, but the beginning of a new era and so the time of remembrance, of promises, is over. For humanity a new day dawned where the prophecies have been fulfilled.

It is Zechariah who had the revelation; it was Gabriel who said to him: you will call him 'Yohanan'—John. John means: the Lord has given grace, has manifested his goodness, has shown his benevolence. Therefore, there is nothing more to remember, but now to observe what the Lord has done. And when Zechariah recovers the speech, he will bless the Lord because he has visited and redeemed his people.

The time of remembrance is over because we now see the fulfillment of what God had promised by the mouth of his holy prophets of old. And he remembered the oath, of the covenant, promised to Abraham our father. Zechariah represents Israel who for so many centuries has kept the promise alive, the certainty that God has promised His people; has seen a sunrise from above… arising to give light to those who live in the darkness and the shadows of death and to direct our steps on the path of peace. The neighbors got scared... For in all the region of Judea (you can see it behind me) there was talk about these things and all wondered: What will become of this child? And the child grew, became strong and went to live in a desert area until the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Therefore, the Baptist leaves his family and these beautiful mountains of Ain Karim and settle in the desert. You can see the desert behind me. Some say that the Baptist went to the monks of Qumran. He spent his adolescence and youth in the desert. It prepares him for his mission, assimilating the spiritual riches which his people accumulated through the experience of the desert.

Let us see the reason why the Lord wanted the people of Israel, whom he wanted to educate, made them spend all this time in the desert. It is the experience that the Baptist does, from a young age, to prepare for his mission and to make him grow in an authentic way. Above all, the desert helps to live only with the essential, there is detachment from clinging to goods, no room for accumulation.

In the desert one walks, and the land that belongs to the walker is the land that he treads. When he advances, that land is no longer his own. It is the image of the path of our life. We build our palaces and then we fancy ourselves to this world as if it were for us the definitive one. We're making a mistake. We must rethink this experience that the Baptist did to remain authentic.

Return to this spirituality of the essential, of uprooting. It's not that this world is not important, but we're just passing through, that's why it's important to have this desert experience. Compared with people who wore splendidly, the Baptist wore camel-skin. And with the people who wore jewelry, perfume to give themselves importance and be someone in front of others, he wore a leather belt. People ate refined, expensive foods, whereas he fed himself with wild honey.

The life of the desert is severe, hard and teaches that one cannot reconcile an easy life with the authenticity of a life lived with meaning. If this experience of living with the essential, a return to the essential in our life is not done: Bread that is only bread, not cake; water that is water, not Coca-Cola or Sprite. A return to the essentials.

Jesus' praise of the Baptist: "What did you go out to see in the desert? A reed blowing in the wind? A man dressed in fine clothes? People who wear fine clothes…are found in palaces. What did you go out to see? A prophet?... "No one may be found greater than John among those born of women (Lk 7:24-28). Along with the austerity of life is the commitment of this man; he did not bow his head to the mighty; he defended life, truth, and justice.

This is another reason why the Baptist pleases us and comes as an example in this feast, because we can see the transformations which we must do in our lives if we want to be authentic Christians.

To prepare ourselves to receive Christ in us is not possible if we do not make this experience which the Baptist made: the recovery of the essential. In a society that forgets God, we must begin to rethink the meaning of our existence; get rid of superfluous things, of refined things... those that occupy so much space of our life ... television, other distractions that prevent us from finding the time to think about the meaning of our existence or to carry out the work of love.

I want to emphasize another aspect of the desert in this experience that the Baptist did: silence. Noise—the noise in which we live is a great enemy of God. What fills the space of our day: the disco for the young, the television always on and with high volume, headphones, cell phones. We are afraid of silence. I believe that the evil one abhors silence because during silence appear the very important and serious questions in our life. Only in silence can we hear God speaking: in the silence of the heart, which is the first silence to be done, but then there is also the external silence.

Those who have made the experience of the desert realize that it is a place of silence where one is invited to enter into oneself and to ask the important questions in life. This is another message that the figure of the Baptist presents to us. The gospel text concludes by saying that John remained in the desert until the moment of his manifestation to Israel, when he began his mission.

The Evangelist Luke, in the third chapter, will begin by saying: "In the fifteenth year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius… the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the desert." And so begins the mission of this person that in the feast of his birth leaves an important message for our life.

A good week for all.

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