Amid the difficulties of life, we sometimes struggle to see the big picture, and sometimes it seems like our very faith in God is being swallowed by our personal tragedies and all kinds of “bad luck”. However, the circumstances of the birth and life of John the Baptist is a testimony that God is in control of every situation. He knows all we are going through – poverty, sickness, family and relationship crises, childlessness, etc. Therefore, let us rest assured that sorrows “may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5).
John’s mother was barren well into her old age, so much that his father was incredulous when the Angel Gabriel predicted his conception. As a result, Zechariah lost his power of speech until John was born. John means “God is gracious” and his birth heralded the beginning of the reign of divine grace in place of the Mosaic Law. The name “John” was given to his father by the angel even before his conception, and this aligns with the words of Isaiah in today’s First Reading that: “The lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. … he formed me in the womb to be his servant (Isaiah 49:1, 5). The same applies to each one of us no matter what we may be going through at this time – the Lord knows everything, and he holds our future in his hands.
Very remarkable here is the fidelity of John’s parents to God’s word regarding the naming of the child. By the Jewish custom then, a male child should be named after one of his ancestors, but there was no precedent for the name “John” in the family line of Zechariah. But in deference to God’s command, he and Elizabeth went outside custom to do God’s will. We too face situations where our customary practices conflict with the demands of our Christian faith how do we normally respond? We must learn to emulate the courage of Zechariah and Elizabeth! Their fidelity to God’s will in this case was not easy as it caused a stir among their people and made them subject to gossips and criticisms. But they did what God commanded, and three awesome things happened as a result. One, Zechariah’s power of speech was restored after nine months of muteness; two, he sang the Benedictus – the great canticle of praise became an integral part of the Church’s Morning Prayer – “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, for he has visited his people and redeemed them”; and three, the whole area was struck by a profound admiration of God.
The courage of Zechariah and Elizabeth, not minding what people’s reactions might be, laid the foundation for John the Baptist’s ministry of preaching and baptism. Through the Scripture, our conscience, the teachings of the Church, or even spontaneous inspirations, the Lord reveals his will to us, and this is always for a reason. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, our fidelity to God’s will pulls us closer to the Lord and has the multiplier effect of grace and blessing upon those we meet. John the Baptist understood this, and it was his insistence on doing God’s will that cost him his head but gained him an eternal reward. Jesus himself declared that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11). Additionally, unlike any other saint, the Church celebrates both his nativity and his death, and he is the only other, after our Lord Jesus, whose birth is celebrated as a solemnity.
Therefore, it may be hard and demanding of self-sacrifice, but following God’s will is always the best way to go. God’s way as the best encapsulates the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. By faith, we believe what God has revealed about himself, that he is pure goodness and that he has sent Christ to be our Saviour. By hope, we acknowledge that God’s wisdom, mercy, and power are so great that he will be able to bring good things out of bad things, happiness out of suffering, Easter Sunday out of Good Friday. And by love, we put our faith and hope into action, sacrificing personal comfort in order to follow God’s will, as Elizabeth and Zechariah did, and as Christ did on the cross. But we surely need all three as without one, the others cannot work. Without faith in divine goodness, we cannot trust God’s way; without hope in divine wisdom and power, we will be doubtful of God’s way; and without a loving obedience to the divine will, our faith and hope are useless!
These theological virtues are like the side of a triangle – without one, it is no longer a triangle. They could also be likened to fire which contains the three elements of fuel, oxygen, and heat which causes the chemical reaction. Any increase in the amount of fuel, oxygen flow, or heat, increases the intensity of the fire and, contrariwise, the removal of any of the elements leads to the stoppage of the fire. Thus, to sustain the fire of holiness and lasting happiness in our hearts, we must believe, hope, and live this fundamental truth: God’s way is the best way! This is the way of John the Baptist and his parents, and also the way of our Lord Jesus and all the saints.
Brothers and sisters, today celebration of the birth of John the Baptist is a great reminder that we all are unique and each one has been called by God, even before we were formed in the womb. The Lord knows each of one us personally and he calls each by name. Let us attune our ears, hearts, and minds to what the Spirit is telling us today. Let us not be discouraged by the pains and disappointments of today, but rather let us set our sights on the big picture and see what glorious future lies ahead. May we learn from the example of John and his parents to keep our focus on doing God’s will, not afraid of gossips and criticisms, and even death. Amen!