Birth of John the Baptist

Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66,80
Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was the son of Zachary, a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, a kinswoman of Mary who visited her. He was probably born at Ain-Karim southwest of Jerusalem after the Angel Gabriel had told Zachary that his wife would bear a child even though she was an old woman. He lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until about A.D. 27. When he was thirty, he began to preach on the banks of the Jordan against the evils of the times and called men to penance and baptism “for the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand”. He attracted large crowds, and when Christ came to him, John recognized Him as the Messiah and baptized Him, saying, “It is I who need baptism from You”. When Christ left to preach in Galilee, John continued preaching in the Jordan valley. Fearful of his great power with the people, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Perea and Galilee, had him arrested and imprisoned at Machaerus Fortress on the Dead Sea when John denounced his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias, wife of his half brother Philip. John was beheaded at the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias, who asked for his head at the instigation of her mother. John inspired many of his followers to follow Christ when he designated Him “the Lamb of God,” among them Andrew and John, who came to know Christ through John’s preaching. John is presented in the New Testament as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the precursor of the Messiah. John came to bear witness to the light, to prepare an upright people for the Lord.
John the Baptist played a unique role in the history of God’s people. He acted as the bridge between the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. Jesus praised his greatness but at the same time said that even the least in the Kingdom was greater than he. While he knew and proclaimed Jesus as the one that all were waiting for and the thongs of whose sandals he was not worthy to loose, he never knew Jesus as his Risen Lord, a privilege granted to the very least of the baptised. His primary title is Precursor. His mission was to go ahead of the Messiah and proclaim his coming. As he said modestly himself, Jesus must increase while he himself must decrease..
The birth of John was a special blessing to his parents, who were already advanced in age, and particularly to Elizabeth. On the eighth day, the day of circumcision, he was named John. They had to consult Zachariah, the father who had miraculously been dumb. But once he writes the name John he joins people singing the name of God. John spent his early days in the desert. His call or the vocation to serve the Lord is expressed in the passage from Isaiah in the First Reading. “The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.” This passage from the Holy Scriptures reveals to us that before we were born, God had chosen our vocation, be it to the Sacrament of the Holy Orders, the religious or single life or the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. His unexpected birth was revealed to his father and his name given to him. His call was unique. He leaves his abode in the desert and preaches: “He made my mouth a sharp sword… he made me into a sharpened arrow…” express John’s effectiveness as a prophet and herald. The reading also implies the suffering and frustrations that were part of John’s life. In the end he was thrown into prison and, on the whim of Herod’s illegitimate wife, executed.
But his life was not in vain. He became, in the words of the reading, “the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth”. John was the last and in some ways the greatest of the Hebrew Testament prophets. As the preface for today’s Mass says he was chosen “from all the prophets to show the world its redeemer, the Lamb of sacrifice”. It was he, who in John’s gospel, points out Jesus to his disciples as the “Lamb of God”. Apart from preaching a message of repentance and conversion to the large number of people who came to hear him, he “baptised Christ, the giver of baptism, in waters made holy by the one who was baptised”. He is presented as a man of total honesty and integrity. Perhaps it was this which attracted so many to come and hear him. And because of this he ultimately lost his life.
John the Baptist’s life has a special meaning for all of us. We are, through our baptism, also called to be precursors of the Lord. Our baptism imposes on us an obligation to share our faith and to give witness to the Way of Jesus, both in word and action. It is well put by Paul, writing to the Roman Community: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!'” In that sense, we are all called to be “preachers”. Our lives individually and collectively are meant to send out a message and an invitation: “Come and join us and share our experience of faith, love and fellowship.” Towards the end of the First Reading, we heard that God decided to encourage His Servant by extending his mission. Not only will the Servant be chosen to restore the Jewish nation, but he will also be a light “to the ends of the earth,” announcing the good news that salvation has come.
In today’s Second Reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles, we heard St. Paul speaking of the criteria that God set when He chose David as king. King David was a man after His heart, who would carry out all His wishes. David was a type of Jesus as His ancestors.” When Paul said that from “David’s posterity God had brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as He promised,” he was making a reference to the Lord Jesus who was raised up in fulfilment of all the promises of the Old Testament. The title of “to Israel a Saviour” meant that Jesus was the “Exalted One,” who’s function it is to save. Through the Lord Jesus, salvation came to all those who had faith in Him, who received the Church Sacraments and who persevered in their living faith.
The Gospel of today provides us with information regarding the birth of John the Baptist. When Elizabeth, the mother of John, gave birth to her son, the fulfilment of time had arrived. The last prophet had been sent by God. What was unique about this prophet is that while others spoke of the coming Messiah, John the Baptist personally knew the Messiah. No one would have expected Elizabeth to bear a child in her old age. Certainly, the neighbours and relatives saw this as a “great favour and blessing from God. It shows too that nothing is impossible for God. What was told by the angel was now fulfilled and Zachariah himself enjoys the favour of God. His response is like that of Elizabeth to praise God and recount the great deeds he has done to the people of Israel. Strangely nothing more is said of them afterwards. But they would have generously sacrificed their son for the mission of God and allowed him to prepare himself for the preparation of the way for the Messiah. John too has his mission to prepare the way of the Lord. We may not be prophets like John or Jeremiah or Isaiah. But we are still called to testify to the Light. we are called to testify as to what Jesus has done for the world by promoting His message of salvation. Let us ask John the Baptist today to help us by the way we live our lives to clear a path which will draw people closer to knowing and experiencing Christ.

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