Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
(Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66.80)
In Mathis Grünewald’s profound painting of Jesus’ crucifixion, a diminutive John the Baptist stands at the Savior’s side. He is smaller than life because the artist wants to signify the meaning of the Baptist’s words in John’s gospel, “(Jesus) must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). For this reason also, the Church has placed the birth of John the Baptist just after the summer solstice when daylight begins to decrease.
Today’s gospel focuses on the naming of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s child. “John” literally means “Yahweh has shown favor.” We see God’s favor in two ways. First, he has blessed the pious couple with a child despite their old age. Second, John will serve as the precursor of God’s greatest blessing – His son, Jesus the Christ. The naming is also significant because by insisting on “John” both parents comply with God’s will. For Zechariah this compliance indicates a turnabout from his previous incredulity when the angel announced to him that he was to have a son. We may see this change of heart as indicative of the grace of Jesus’ coming already taking effect.
A woman I know always sends Christmas cards in July. It seems incongruous to be thinking of cold nights and warm stables when hot winds are blowing across the land. But her sentiment is much the same that the Church wants to propagate with the celebration of John’s birth today. The birth of Jesus is news to good too be contained. It needs to be announced in season and out of season. Today we celebrate one who announced it even before he was born.