Reading 1: ISAIAH 49:1-6
Psalm: PS 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15
Reading 2: ACTS 13:22-26
Gospel: LK 1:57-66, 80
Pastoral Note: The readings for today's reflection are taken from the "day" readings as apposed to the "vigil" readings that are used for the Mass of anticipation on Saturday evening.
Six months from tomorrow is Christmas, the Solemn Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. John the Baptist’s birth falls now, six months before the Savior’s birth according to the remark made in Luke 1 in which the angel, Gabriel, announced to Mary that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, was already in her sixth month of pregnancy. Thus, out of respect for that narrative detail, today’s biblical recollection finds a chronological date on the Church’s liturgical calendar.
As with the scripture texts for last night’s Vigil, today’s lessons describe the classical prophetic character in differing degrees. The first reading, from Deutero-Isaiah, composed early in the Persian liberation of the enslaved grandchildren born during Judaism’s Babylonian Captivity, defined for the prophet his task and authority. (Deutero-Isaiah was not Isaiah of the 8th Century BC, but another anonymous prophet who’s utterances have been added to the original Isaiah’s first 39 chapters within a decade or two after 539 BC). Using various metaphors for divine strength and protection, this prophet was God’s servant through whom divine glory would be made manifest through a renewed and restored freedom for God’s Chosen People. Re-read the text we heard on Palm Sunday (Isaiah 50:4-7) for a very strong parallel description of God’s herald by the same author. Just as the captive Jews of the early 6th Century BC had reason to believe that they had forfeited their covenant with God and yet had found renewed hope after half a century of captivity, so too had this prophet teetered on despair. Suddenly, he saw that through his fidelity to God’s message, “Jacob (the ancient tribal name for the whole Jewish people from the third great patriarch) may be brought back” and “Israel (another tribal name of the same patriarch for the Jewish people) gathered to him,” i.e., to God in the restored holy land. That the scripture text is addressed to the “coastlands” announces this joyful news to the entire world for the coastal lands were the effective edge of the world as imagined in those days. God’s good news for the whole world was that the restored Judaism and Jerusalem were to be a metaphorical “light to the nations” (again, meaning all the tribes of the whole world) and that God’s “salvation would reach to the ends of the earth.” It is indeed in the Book of Isaiah God’s salvation begins to hint at a shift from an exclusive chosen-ness for his special people to a universal offer to all humanity. This text shows that the prophet’s audience was broadening from one merely of his own people towards that of a whole earth audience. Christians re-interpret these words to be an invitation to universal eternal salvation.
The Gospel passage for today is from the mythic lore of early Christians about the birth of the very final Old Testament prophet who happened also to be the very first New Testament prophet. The miraculous naming of John parallels the naming of Isaiah in today’s first reading (even though we don’t know 2nd Isaiah’s historical name!). The provocative question, “What, then, will this child be?” was answered by recognizing God’s power behind such a one as John. His growth and strength in spirit parallels words of wonder predicted about Jesus at the time of his presentation in the temple. The statements and assertions in this text are really summaries of the earliest Christian hopes for a genuine savior who would come and make a profoundly positive improvement to the world of that time. That was the genuine role of the true prophet, to not merely critique, but to critique for the sake of positive correction, improvement and appreciation. Jesus came “not for the righteous, but for sinners” (Mark 2:17 and parallels); thus did Jesus describe his task as prophet, a task which belongs to all New Testament prophets ever since.
The second reading today is excerpted from an apostolic sermon placed in Paul’s mouth in the Acts of the Apostles. The early Christians appreciated John the Baptist in the religious lineage from the ideal King David as the forerunner and herald who had announced the actual arrival of the messiah, a true Son of David. John’s tool was human repentance. Advocating such a profoundly personal change of mind (the Greek word metanoia gets translated “repent” in the Gospels; it literally means “change your mind”). Christians assert that by changing our minds and opening our hearts we genuinely hear and embrace the Gospel message. John’s self-deprecating attitude seems to have been very memorable to the early Church members. A humble and self-critical prophet is certainly an unusual image. But it ought to be the norm!
All in all, the memory of the birth of the prophet John is important in the Church’s theological reflection because it is in the person of John the Baptizer that Christians perceive the shift from the Old Testament of Moses to the New Testament of Jesus the Christ. Jesus said of John, “... among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he ... and, if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11-15). John said of himself, “... I am not the messiah ... He [Jesus] must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:25-30). The Church’s mission has always been about announcing the Good News, the Gospel, that “the kingdom of heaven is near; repent, and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15 and parallels). The adult John was the first to publically announce that the time of messianic fulfillment had arrived. Thus, the liturgical festival of the Nativity of John the Baptist might be called our imaginative beginning of the Gospel Era.
Prepare the way of the Lord! Open your ears, that you may hear!