Looking forward with God. Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Joseph Evans comments on the readings of the nativity of St. John the Baptist

Joseph Evans-June 21, 2024-Reading time: 2 minutes

Names in the Bible have great significance. They often indicate the mission to which that person has been called.

Thus, St. Joseph is told to call Mary's son "Jesus," "for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). The name "Jesus" means precisely "Yahweh saves". 

But, at least in Our Lord's time, it was already customary for a child to be named after his father. The meaning of the name mattered less; what mattered was the continuation of the lineage. 

Thus, in today's Gospel, on the feast of St. John the Baptist, we learn that when the time came for the child to be circumcised, "they wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father.".

There was a problem: the angel Gabriel had already told Zechariah to call the child John (Lk 1:13).

The difference is significant: Zechariah means "God remembers", John means "God is merciful". Thus, Zechariah's name suggests looking back, remembering all the great deeds of God in favor of Israel. This is usually good, but not when God introduces a radical novelty. 

When God does this, it is time to look forward, not backward. God was about to be merciful to humanity, to give us his own Son as Emmanuel, God with us, God made man.

God was about to become incarnate as Jesus Christ "full of grace and truth"(Jn 1:14) and John was to be the great prophet who would prepare his coming.

It is evident that at some point Zacharias had informed Elizabeth of this name, no doubt in writing, since he could not speak. So she bravely spoke up to insist: "No! His name is going to be Juan."

The friends and family, who did not trust her because she was a woman, asked Zechariah and he asked for a tablet on which he wrote: "John is his name.". His tongue was loosed, he spoke and praised God. In fact, his prayer, known as the Benedictus -which priests, religious and others pray each morning at the Divine Office-is a particularly beautiful reflection, as it looks backward to look forward. 

Zechariah remembers all that God has done for Israel, but he understands, with those months of recollection granted to him by the imposed silence, that God can really do radically new things.

Earlier he had doubted this when he wondered how God could give him and his wife, both now elderly, a son after so many years without having one.

God was being merciful and his son John would "go before the Lord to prepare his ways, declaring salvation to his people".

Zechariah has learned that God, in Jesus, was going to accomplish something truly new and grace-filled, including, let us not forget, a community that valued women and their work of salvation and then, at its height, as the first witnesses of the Resurrection, God's most grace-filled work.

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