The birth of every child is a wondrous gift to the world. Some children, however, have a more public impact in their world than others. Today’s gospel is a story about the birth of one such child, a child who came to be known as John the Baptist. It is a story about his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and the impact of his birth on family, friends, neighbours, and nation. The child’s birth is received as an expression of God’s mercy to Elizabeth who in the normal course of events is past child-bearing age. The biblically literate reader knows at once that this child belongs in a long line of biblical children of older women whom God has favoured, women like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Elizabeth is surrounded by family and friends who share in her joy. She is a strong woman who takes her own power when these family members and friends try to assume control of the naming of the child. Her prophetic utterance, ‘he is to be called John’, is confirmed by Zechariah, her husband, who regains his speech at that moment and praises God. The response from those around to the evident presence of God’s working in their lives is one of awe (translated inadequately as ‘fear’).
Names carry meaning. They hold the hopes of parents and foreshadow the accomplishments of the child. We probably subconsciously all try to live up to the expectations embodied in our names. ‘John’ comes from the Hebrew and means ‘God’s grace’: the female form is Joanne or Joanna. John the Baptist is graced by God and is also an instrument of God’s grace. Luke parallels the story of the prophet John with that of the prophet Jesus in ways that point to the even more significant role of Jesus in God’s dealings with God’s people. John grows and becomes strong in spirit. Jesus grows strong and advances in age and wisdom and grace (2:41, 49). John is the voice crying in the wilderness, the one preparing the way (3:5-6). Jesus will go into the wilderness and emerge victorious to teach the ways of God (4:1, 15). John baptises with water, Jesus ‘with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (3:16). John fasts, Jesus feasts. John knows who he is and what he has to do. He is not the Messiah and he refuses to accept the adulation of the crowd. John’s story keeps giving way to that of Jesus and the community that forms around him. In a sense, we are all called to do what John does, namely to point beyond ourselves to the one who incarnates the fullness of God’s life and love.