• Is 49:1-6
• Ps 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15
• Acts 13:22-26
• Lk 1:57-66, 80
The birth of a child is a momentous occasion, filled with joy, hope, and, yes, some apprehension. It is also a time of transition; it breaks time into “before” and “after,” and brings all sorts of changes into the lives of parents, family, and friends.
The Church, in the course of the liturgical year, celebrates the birth of three people, related by blood, bound together by the work of the Holy Spirit, and united in bringing about the greatest “before” and “after” in the history of the world.
The greatest of these solemnities is, of course, the Nativity of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The second is the Nativity of the Mother of God, the blessed Virgin Mary, who was conceived, born, and lived without sin. The third is John the Baptist, whose role in the mystery of God’s plan of salvation is difficult to exaggerate and yet is often taken for granted.
While Mary was chosen to bear and mother the Son of God, John the Baptist was chosen to prepare the way for the Lamb of God and to announce Him to the world. “John surpasses all the prophets,” remarks the Catechism, “of whom he is the last. He inaugurates the Gospel, already from his mother’s womb welcomes the coming of Christ, and rejoices in being ‘the friend of the bridegroom’, whom he points out as ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’” (CCC 523).
But, the Catechism also points out, John was more than a prophet (CCC 719). He was the culmination of a long and illustrious line of prophets who spoke and suffered for the Lord. Today’s reading from Isaiah, in which that Old Testament prophet described how God named him while yet in the womb, finds perfect fulfillment in John. His father, the priest Zechariah, had been told by an angel—as he offering incense in the temple—that he would have a son whose name would be John. “He will be great in the sight of the Lord,” the frightened priest was told, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Lk 1:13-17).
The birth, life, and martyrdom of John the Baptist are intimately connected with the work of the Holy Spirit. Even before birth he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and from the womb he leapt in recognition of his Lord’s presence (Lk 1:41). He was the “voice of the Consoler” who was yet to come, bearing witness to the light of Christ, just as the Holy Spirit has done since Pentecost (CCC 719).
When the Triune nature of God was revealed at Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, it was John who, reluctantly, performed the baptism. That revelatory event marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and John’s declaration, as a self-described “best man” of the Bridegroom, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
This feast celebrating John the Baptist’s birth is also a celebration of the prophet’s role in paving the way for the new birth granted to all those baptized into Christ. “Finally, with John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit begins the restoration to man of ‘the divine likeness,’ prefiguring what he would achieve with and in Christ. John’s baptism was for repentance; baptism in water and the Spirit will be a new birth” (CCC 720).
Called by God, John knew who he was because he always saw himself in relation to Jesus. Filled with the Holy Spirit, John poured out his life for the Kingdom, his own death foreshadowing the crucifixion of the King of Kings. Born in the midst of the greatest events of human history, John the Baptist continues to declare, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the June 24, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)