June 22, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

The birth of John the Baptist points us to Jesus

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God”
(Lk 1:12).

Every new birth is a miracle. God shares with a woman and a man the power of creation, which belongs to God alone, bringing into the world a child endowed with intelligence, freedom and the capacity to love. Every child—born and unborn—should be a cause for wonder and rejoicing in spite of the sad circumstances that may accompany his or her conception and birth.

The birth which we celebrate this Sunday, June 24, as the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, was a miracle extraordinaire, a miracle that transcended the “ordinary” miracle of human birth and marked a special moment in human history.

St. Luke’s Gospel tells us that John’s mother Elizabeth, who was a relative of Mary, and his father Zechariah “were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years” (Lk 1:6-7).

Zechariah, who was a priest, had a vision while serving in the Temple. An angel appeared to him and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice in his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (Lk 1:13-15).

Zechariah was dumbfounded. He was so incredulous, so skeptical and unbelieving that until the child was born and brought into the Temple to be circumcised on the eighth day, he found himself unable to talk. It was not until his neighbors and relatives asked him to confirm the child’s name and he wrote on a tablet “John,” that “his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God” (Lk 1:64).

Unlike Mary, Elizabeth’s pregnancy came about in the usual way—as the result of marital intercourse with her husband. Still, there was nothing usual about John’s conception and birth. As St. Luke tells us, he was “filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1:15), and he was destined to greatness, “to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Lk 1:17) from the moment of his conception.

We celebrate the nativity of St. John the Baptist because it reminds us that God is the author of all life. Elizabeth and Zechariah were blessed with a child late in life. Because they were righteous people who feared the Lord and obeyed his commandments, they were chosen by God to be the parents of one who would play a special role in the history of our salvation.

The story of John’s conception, of his encounter with Jesus even in his mother’s womb, and of his unique role as a precursor—the one commissioned to prepare for the coming of the Lord—is a story of God’s active participation in human affairs. Telling this story, and celebrating the mysteries it reveals, is our way of acknowledging that we are sharers in the creation of new life, called to reverence all life and to respect the dignity of each and every unborn and newborn child.

The child we celebrate this Sunday will grow up to be a righteous man like his parents. He will be led by the Holy Spirit to become a witness—a martyr—to the one whose sandals he is not fit to untie. He will preach a baptism of repentance, a form of conversion that will be superseded by baptism in the Holy Spirit. He will speak the truth in love and be severely punished by King Herod for exposing the vanity and futility of the political forces of his time. He will lose his life, as all martyrs do, confident that the God who is the author of all life will sustain him at the end of his life and beyond.

We celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist because he points us to Jesus, the way, the truth and the life. “It’s not about me,” John continues to say. “It’s about the one who comes after me to set us free.”

Let’s pray for the wisdom and the courage of Elizabeth and Zechariah, who brought a child into their troubled time with rejoicing and gladness. Let’s pray for the grace to recognize that every child in its mother’s womb is a gift from God to be nurtured, protected and loved. Let’s hope that John’s call to repentance will be heard and that his witness will continually show us the way to Jesus. †

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