Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.
Many of us may wonder why the birth of John the Baptist is so important that the readings related to his birth are for a Sunday celebration. We may also wonder what is so special about John the Baptist, compared with Jesus and Our Lady. Other questions that we may ask are why does the Church remember John the Baptist and why was he so important that we still celebrate his memory?
First of all, historically the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist are forever intertwined as long as the earth shall endure. We are puzzled by the fact that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. That action seems to make Jesus subservient to John. Furthermore, it was only after the arrest of John that Jesus began his public ministry. In other words, Jesus’ public ministry was prompted by John’s arrest. Among the apostles of Jesus, some were initially followers of John, for example John and Andrew. The closeness of John and Jesus, not to mention that they were in fact cousins, can easily cause confusions and sometimes even embarrassments.
Such confusions and embarrassments are in the gospels. For example, Jesus and John were sometimes confused for one another. One of such occasion was on hearing reports of Jesus, Herod thinks John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. On another occasion, when Jesus asks his disciples who do the people say that he is, they reply that some say he is John the Baptist.
If we follow the gospels carefully, we would soon notice that in Mark's Gospel, John the Baptist doesn't recognize Jesus and instead just says another greater than he is coming; in Matthew and Luke no human being is said to be greater than John the Baptist, but the least in the kingdom of God, in Jesus' Kingdom, is greater than John; in Luke's Gospel Jesus and John are made kinsmen as a way of clarifying their relationship.
It is because of the influence of John's Gospel that we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist today. John the Evangelist wrote that John the Baptist comes to testify to the light. He pointed out that John the Baptist is not the light and that John must decrease while Jesus increases. For this reason the Church celebrates the birth of Jesus shortly after the winter solstice when the length of the days is increasing and celebrates the birth of John the Baptist today, after the summer solstice when the length of the days is waning.
Why do we still remember John the Baptist? And what do we remember?
John the Baptist was a servant of God and not the Messiah. John prepared the people for the coming of the Kingdom, for the coming of Jesus. John is a model for us, calling us also to prepare the way of the Lord.
On face value, John the Baptist is more likely candidate to be the Jewish Messiah. He came from a priestly family and could have therefore been more likely to receive the support of the scribes and priests and perhaps the Pharisees. He was brash and outspoken and did not hesitate to speak out no matter who he might offend. His condemnation of the relationship between Herod and Herodius led to his arrest and being beheaded. He was wild in appearance and in lifestyle, dwelling in the desert. He was just the kind of person to rise up and lead a rebellion and restore the Kingdom of Israel, at least in the popular imagination.
John is a bridge between the Old and the New Testaments. He is both the last prophet of the Old Testament and the first to testify to the New Testament.
The pivotal role John plays in salvation history cannot be denied or dismissed. John was chosen from his mother's womb by God to prepare the way, to testify to the light and herald the coming of Christ, to call people back to a right relationship with God and with one another. For all of this, we honour John the Baptist today. Amen.