Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors 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. Luke 1:57-68.
In today’s Gospel reading in the Daily Office, we find the story of the birth and naming of John the Baptist. This bit of Scripture provides us with a wonderful Advent reflection on John, who our Orthodox brothers and sisters call The Forerunner. It’s a remarkable story.
As you’ll remember, John’s father (Zechariah) was a priest. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, explaining that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son named John, a son who would turn the people of Israel’s hearts to the Lord. When Zechariah expressed his disbelief, he was struck dumb.
For months, Zechariah remains dumb-struck in this God-imposed silence. (Sometimes, it seems, even God wants priests to remain silent.) We shouldn’t judge Zechariah too harshly, though, because nothing that was happening was….well, natural. I sometimes think Zechariah was struck dumb mostly because he continued to cling to his hopelessness, even when his better angels told him there was good cause to trust God and hope for a better world.
Although tradition dictated that the child would bear a family name, Zechariah insistently scribbled on a writing-tablet: “His name is John.” Scripture teaches that Zechariah’s speech returned immediately, and he proclaimed that God’s redemption of his people was at hand.
The story provides several important Advent messages. First, Elizabeth (who was elderly and barren) will produce a child, just as a world which had become stale and ordinary and barren of meaning will produce something completely new. Zechariah, speechless through his disobedience, recovers all that he has lost by listening to the Lord. (He recovers his speech at his son’s circumcision, a rite which operated as a sign of the covenantal relationship between the people of Israel and the God who chose them.) Within the loving covenant God calls us into, life springs up in the desert, and all we’ve lost will be recovered.
The story serves as an extended metaphor for what’s going on in the Incarnation. God is breaking into this broken, handicapped, barren world. He is re-defining what is “natural”; in other words, re-making all of creation. This isn’t just an ocasional miracle in a world that otherwise remains the same. With apologies to the advertising industry, “This changes everything.”
The birth of John, often referred to as the last of the Old Testament prophets, signals that God is redeeming and reclaiming all of creation. It teaches that we cannot rely on the old rules or our old expectations anymore. Thus, during this time of year when the days are shorter and the darkness seems to dominate time itself, we light an Advent candle. We know things are about to change.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2011 James R. Dennis