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Select Exegesis
June, 20 2018

Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (B)

Dr. Terrance Callan

This Sunday we celebrate the feast of John the Baptist's birth. We do so because of his important role in the history of salvation, namely to prepare the way for Jesus.

The reading from the gospel according to Luke tells the story of John's birth. According to Luke, John's birth preceded and paralleled that of Jesus, so that even in his birth John prepared the way for Jesus. Like Jesus', John's birth was announced beforehand. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, a priest, while he was offering incense in the temple in Jerusalem. Gabriel told Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son who was to be named John. When Zechariah asked how he could be sure of this, since he and his wife were old, Gabriel told him he would be unable to speak until these things occurred (see Luke 1:5-23).

Elizabeth did conceive a child and at the conclusion of her pregnancy, gave birth to a son. On the eighth day after his birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth's neighbors and relatives gathered to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah, but Elizabeth said, "He will be called John." Then the neighbors and relatives asked Zechariah what to name the child. He wrote on a tablet, "John is his name." Immediately Zechariah's ability to speak was restored. As a result of this, "fear came upon all their neighbors," and they wondered what this child would be since clearly "the hand of the Lord was with him."

However, Zechariah and the readers of Luke's gospel already know what John will be. Gabriel had told Zechariah what his son would do when he announced John's birth, and Zechariah prophesied the significance of his son after he was born (see Luke 1:67-79). The other readings for today also inform us about what John would be.

The birth of John the Baptist fulfilled the reading from the prophet Isaiah. This is one of the passages from Isaiah known as Servant Songs because they concern someone who is called the servant of the Lord. In this passage the servant says about the Lord, "from my mother's womb he gave me my name." This was true of John the Baptist. The servant says that God sent him "that Jacob may be brought back to him and Israel gathered to him." Gabriel described the mission of John the Baptist similarly in Luke 1:16. The servant says that God also said to him, "I will make you a light to the nations." John the Baptist fulfilled this by preparing the way for Jesus, who was both "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God's] people Israel" (Luke 2:32).

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles speaks explicitly about the mission of John as one of preparing for Jesus. This is part of a speech given by Paul in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Paul says, "John heralded [Jesus'] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel." John prepared the way for Jesus by calling on people to repent and to be baptized as a sign of their repentance. But John was only the herald. John said, "What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet."

John the Baptist was very important, but not of the greatest importance. As Jesus says in Luke 7:28, "I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he is."

Terrance Callan


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