Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." But I said, "I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God." And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength - he says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
In those days, Paul said: God made David king of our ancestors.. In his testimony about him he said, "I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes." Of this man's posterity God has brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, "What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet." "My brothers, you descendants of Abraham's family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent.
The time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, "No; he is to be called John." They said to her, "None of your relatives has this name." Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, "What then will this child become?" For, indeed, 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 he appeared publicly to Israel.
We might wonder why the birth of Saint John the Baptist is such a big feast-day, in fact a solemnity. The meaning of his name, in Hebrew "Yeho-hanan," means "the Lord is gracious" and as Luke's account underlines, in John the Baptist, God had shown great favour, not just to the childless couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, but to the whole of humanity. Before John the Baptist came on the scene, the prophetic voice in Israel has been silent for 400 years. When the Baptist came into the desert near the river Jordan, he breathed fire and preached repentance and renewal. All four Gospels agree that it was he who prepared the way for Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One of God. So the whole Christian traditions honours John the Baptist as the precursor, the one who ran ahead as herald of the graciousness from God which came through Jesus, filled with grace and truth.
The office of Readings for today includes St. Augustine's comparison of John's birth with that of Jesus:
"John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. That he is somehow or other a boundary is something that the Lord himself indicates when he says, The Law and the prophets were until John. So he represents the old and heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother's womb. You will remember that, before he was born, at Mary's arrival he leapt in his mother's womb. Already he had been marked out there, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him. These are divine matters, and exceed the measure of human frailty. Finally, he is born, he receives a name, and his father's tongue is loosed.
Zachary is struck dumb and loses his voice, until John, the Lord's forerunner, is born and releases his voice for him. What does Zachary's silence mean, but that prophecy was obscure and, before the proclamation of Christ, somehow concealed and shut up? It is released and opened up by his arrival, it becomes clear when the one who was being prophesied is about to come. The releasing of Zachary's voice at the birth of John has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. If John were meant to proclaim himself, he would not be opening Zachary's mouth. The tongue is released because a voice is being born — for when John was already heralding the Lord, he was asked, Who are you and he replied I am the voice of one crying in the desert. John is the voice, but the Lord in the beginning was the Word. John is a voice for a time, but Christ is the eternal Word from the beginning.."
As Saint John the Baptist pointed the right way for the people of his time, each of us, in our various capacities, can do for people in our time. We can help prepare our people to receive the graciousness and the favour of God. The name John means God is gracious or God shows favour. We too have a significant name, for being Christians implies that we share in the anointing or missioning of Jesus. It means that we are to be like other Christs to the world. May we be blessed with the grace of God, to fulfil our mission as faithfully as John did his.
John the Baptist is the only saint, after Jesus himself, whose birth is celebrated with a solemn feast. We have it on June 24th, six months before celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th. Recalling Jesus' birth at Christmas coincides more or less with the winter solstice. Just as the light of the sun begins to make a comeback after darkness has reached its peak, we celebrate the birth of the light of the world. The birthday of John the Baptist, in contrast, is recalled just after the summer solstice. This too is symbolic, for as the light of the sun begins to decrease after reaching its peak, we celebrate the birth of the one who said of Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease."
This question was asked by the neighbours and relations : "What will this child turn out to be?" could be asked of any of us. It is a question that could be asked about any of us at any stage of our lives, "What will we turn out to be?," or to put the question in terms of religious faith, "What does God want us to be"? "Is there a divine purpose for our lives?"
The purpose of John's life and God's purposes for all of us have much in common. Our Maker wants all of us to do what John did, to point out the Saviour, to make way for Jesus, to lead others to him by what we say and do. John the Baptist, whose birth we now celebrate, has something to teach us about how to follow our God-given calling. He was a man of quiet, the desert, and a man of prayer. We all need to find our own desert place of prayer if we are to remain true to our calling to lead others to the Lord, if we are to turn out as God wants us to.