Isaiah 49: 1-6; Acts 13: 22-26; Luke 1: 57-66, 80
It’s good to take a break from the ordinary cycle of readings to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. Whether it’s his, Jesus’ or even in our own families, we know there’s something special about birth. Babies, infants, kids, have a way of pulling us adults outside of ourselves and to free us, even if for a time, of our selfishness and self-centeredness. They are utterly dependent upon us and totally defenseless. They are a good reminder to us just how much we’re not in charge and, despite their size, how many bigger things there are that often get missed. Yet, as a human family we still find ways to abuse, separate, take advantage of, and use children for our own gain because of who they are rather than being a message of hope, as it is with John the Baptist and Jesus, both of which are intertwined in this beginning of Luke’s Gospel.
Of course, though, on his birth we hear nothing from him, not even a whimper. He is the one, though, that prepares the way as we hear in Advent, for literally the advent of something new. There is a message of hope. Quite possibly, though, he learns how to be the one that prepares the way through his parents who are a part of today’s Gospel, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, they are advanced in years, beyond child-bearing, and literally defined by Luke as being barren. There’s no chance of life. Yet, in their own way as Luke tells us, they have prepared for this moment. There was still a sense of receptivity that God can still do great things in their lives, so both Elizabeth and Mary stand as model in that sense.
It’s Zechariah, though that has his own way of preparing for this moment of hope. His story mirrors that of Mary in some ways when the message is delivered that they are about to give birth. Mary, as we know, responds with a great sense of openness, freedom, and yet a sense of wonder as to how something like this is possible. Zechariah, on the other hand, still comes with a sense of wonder, but like a good man, his wonder has more to do with how he’s going to do this. His wonder is much more rooted in fear. He has yet to be pulled out of himself and remains somewhat closed to the gift being given and so is silenced for nine months. That, quite possibly, was God’s real gift to Elizabeth. However, like any baby, when that child enters the world and Zechariah looks at him for the first time, things begin to change. The one who prepares with fear and is silenced, now comes with a sense of freedom in dismantling his own lineage in naming the child John. John will not be bound by that same history and inaugurates the new day. In the end, Elizabeth and Zechariah teach their own son how to prepare by how they prepared for that same message of God breaking into their lives. All John can do as his life proceeds is to point the way.
With the birth of a child our hearts expand. They give us a sense of hope and wonder. They allow us to be free to receive and to give this unconditional love. Of course, it’s Israel’s own struggle and the great prophets that come before John try to lead Israel to that same promise, reminding them too that there are bigger things than themselves. Israel makes the same mistake we continue to make to this day by getting caught up in ourselves, getting stuck in our own selfishness and self-centeredness. The largeness of one’s heart can pretty much be determined by how they respond to children. The smaller our hearts, the more prone to using them for our own advantage. We have certainly seen that in the history of the world and continue to do so and certainly in our own country. It’s the message that is conveyed in the gospels over and over again, about children, women, the vulnerable, the poor, all of which, for Jesus and John, pulled people out of themselves and gave the freedom to be receptive to the working of God, to mystery, to the newness of life. It’s how Isaiah can proclaim today that the message goes to the ends of the earth. When the heart begins to expand and we move outside ourselves, the message becomes universal. That’s the working of God in the life of Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, but also in our lives to this day.
Our tendency is to become small and closed off. We have no need for anything new, for wonder, for mystery, but that cuts us off from the Creator and Giver of life. We don’t just celebrate the birth of the Baptist, we celebrate what God continues to do in our lives, despite our fear, our trepidation, our loss of wonder. John reminds us that we too need to prepare for what great works God wants to do in and through us. Maybe we’re just Zechariah and we just need to be silenced or find silence for some time, creating space and wonder. Maybe we find ourselves like Elizabeth, barren in our own way. They remind us that miracles still happen but we must be prepared and certainly receptive to the life being given. As we celebrate this day with solemnity on the birth of John the Baptist, we pray with the family of Abraham for a greater sense of openness in our own lives and that like these characters, we may be used in similar ways to give birth to something new, something in our lives that, all we can do, is point the way to the One who continues to do great things.