It’s just about six months until Christmas!
Go ahead. Gasp.
But for a preview of coming attractions, and a glance ahead to Christmas, look no further than the feast we celebrate tomorrow, the nativity of John the Baptist. 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. There was an angel who announced it, and parents who hadn’t planned on it, and a name for the baby that was chosen by God.
In one of the more remarkable moments of this Gospel, Elizabeth defied family 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.”
John is an ancient Hebrew name rich with meaning – for Zechariah and Elizabeth. And for us.
As the Gospel indicates, the name is not an accident. It was pronounced by the angel Gabriel – and its meaning serves to send a message to the world. Some translations have it as “Gift of God” or “Graced by God.” But in one interpretation that I like, the name means “God is gracious.”
In giving an aging, childless couple a new life…God is gracious.
In making what seemed impossible possible…God is gracious.
In working miracles where we least expect…God is gracious.
He is gracious in offering us that most precious and elusive commodity: hope. And so it was that before this child has uttered a word John, just with his name, announced the hope that would come with the Christ.
God is gracious.
How desperately we need to hear that now. The news can be numbing, and dispiriting. In a time of church scandal, of political mudslinging, of economic anxiety and war and volatility around the globe…it can be tempting to forget that simple, undeniable and enduring truth:
Despite our hardships and misgivings, our problems and setbacks…God is gracious. And His grace is what sustains us.
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 humanity was able to enter the Christian era.
He opened the world’s ears – and eyes – to possibility. He made us ready for Christ.
Consider that. Consider what that has meant for us, and how the forerunner of the Messiah was also the forerunner of all that we do here this day. He prepared the way of the Lord. And he prepared the way for all that would follow – including this Holy Sacrifice that we celebrate today.
Beyond being a prophet, and a martyr, and a saint, John the Baptist was one of God’s gifts to a needy and searching world – a sign to us of a Father’s generous love for His children. A cause for optimism and a reason for hope. You could almost consider this feast the Christmas BEFORE Christmas. And it comes to us as a blessed reminder of what God can do.
Elizabeth, the Baptist’s mother, put it so clearly and so perfectly, as mothers often do.
“He will be called John.”
Because God is gracious.