It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Oh, we aren’t getting catalogs – not yet, anyway – and the elves and tinsel and snowmen aren’t up in the stores yet. We still have months to go before the first carols start playing in the malls and the Salvation Army bell ringers set up their kettles.
But even now, in the blazing light of June, just past the summer solstice, when the days are longest and we’re lathering on the SPF 40 sunscreen…our attention is being drawn to a distant star of winter.
Because today, we meet another miraculous infant: the one who will grow up to prepare the way of the Lord.
This is a phenomenal feast – and a rare one. Only three times during the year does the Church celebrate a birthday: for Jesus, for His mother…and for John the Baptist. The Baptist is in illustrious company, and this serves to remind us just how important he is to our salvation history.
When you consider the circumstances surrounding it, the Nativity of John the Baptist is almost as full of wonder as the nativity of Jesus. Like Jesus’s birth, there is great mystery. Like Jesus’s birth, there is an angel who announces it, and parents who hadn’t planned on it, and a name for the baby that is chosen by God.
In one of the more remarkable moments of this whole remarkable episode, Elizabeth defies tribal tradition with one succinct phrase: “He will be called John.” She was able to make that leap of faith and give this child the name for which he was destined.
“He will be called John.”
He will NOT be what others expect. This one will be different. The neighbors and relatives of this child could not have imagined they were welcoming into the world a prophet…a saint…and a martyr.
They could not have understood that the child born to an old couple in the hills of Judea would one day announce the arrival of God.
For just as surely as Jesus was and is The Word, John was the Voice. “The voice crying in the wilderness,” he is called at one point.
Which only adds irony to this gospel, because the father of The Voice…is mute.
Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?
You have to wonder what sort of man Zechariah was to suffer that kind of fate. Was he the town storyteller? Or maybe a singer? Or just extraordinarily talkative?
Whatever kind of man he was…his destiny, at this moment, is to listen.
In fact, listening is almost as vital in this Sunday’s readings as speaking. It leaps out at us from the first word of the Old Testament reading from Isaiah.
“Hear me, O coastlands…listen O distant peoples…”
“For now…the Lord has spoken…”
God’s voice will be heard.
Something extraordinary is about to begin.
And it begins with a baby. “He will be called John.”
It is an ancient Hebrew name rich with meaning – for Zechariah and Elizabeth. And for us.
It means “God is gracious.”
In giving an aging, childless couple a new life…God is gracious.
In giving the world a forerunner of the savior…God is gracious.
In giving it a savior at all…God is gracious.
He is gracious in offering us that most precious and elusive commodity: hope. Before this child has uttered a word, John, just with his name, announces to us the hope that will come with the Messiah.
Yes, God is gracious.
We are also reminded this Sunday that we have come to a kind of turning point in the liturgical calendar. After Easter, and the many celebrations that follow – Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and the feast of the Most Blessed Sacrament – we mark a string of summer Sundays in Ordinary Time. But before we do that, we pause to celebrate this one feast – one of the oldest in all of Christianity. And one that comes smack in the middle of our calendar.
And for good reason. The birth of John the Baptist is the pivot around which our calendar turns – just as his life was the fulcrum for our faith. He was the last prophet of the Old Covenant – and the first prophet of the New. He is the doorway through which the world was able to enter the Christian era.
He opened the world’s ears – and eyes – to possibility. He made us ready for Christ.
Christmas will be here soon enough. But that nativity is foreshadowed by this one.
So welcome this child and celebrate him. We will meet him again, in the desert. He will cry out for humanity’s conversion, attracting throngs of people – including a solitary carpenter who will bring good news to the world.
Consider that. Consider that carpenter, Jesus Christ, and what He has left us — in the faith we have been given, in the Eucharist we are about to receive, in the salvation we are offered.
And consider today the one who set the stage for that extraordinary life.
His mother put it so well, as mothers often do.
“He will be called John.”
Because God is gracious.