Nativity of St John the Baptist

Nativity of St John the Baptist

Predestined From All Eternity

Apparition of the Angel to Zechariah – Church of St. John the Baptist, Halifax (Nova Scotia)

With the celebration of the Vigil Mass, the Holy Church begins the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, whose unequalled figure merited praise from the lips of the Saviour: “Among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11). He is the only saint – with the exception of Our Lady – who is commemorated twice a year, both on the day of his departure for Heaven, August 29, and principally, on the day of his birth. This privilege stems from the fact that, freed from the shackles of sin in his mother’s womb, he came into this world adorned with the full possession of sanctifying grace. Indeed, he was idealized by God, from all eternity, as a preeminent man, to go before the God-Man when the “time had fully come” (Gal 4:4).

God conceived us from all eternity

Each of us has a clear notion of having come into the world through the cooperation of a father and a mother, whom we know and love. But we tend to overlook that before being physically begotten by our parents, we were conceived and known by God from a “moment” impossible to determine, since it was eternal. Our poor intelligence is incapable of even imagining the divine mind, in which there is neither past nor future, for everything is present.

Having come from the hands of God, who directly creates each soul, it is fitting for us to cultivate a strong relationship with Him, upon Whom we depend for life, as contingent beings. Otherwise our condition is like that of an abandoned child, who may experience moments of joy, yet who lacks the happiness of belonging to a family. For His part, far from being like a cruel mother who forsakes her child, God never abandons us, and wants to establish a close relationship with us, as we read in Scripture: “Can a woman forget her child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is 49:15).

The predestination to a privileged mission is evident at the birth of St. John the Baptist. This is followed by outstanding divine protection, as highlighted by the readings for both the Masses of this Solemnity – that of the Vigil and the Day – which narrate the calling of the prophet Jeremiah and the prophet Isaiah, perfectly applicable to the Precursor: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5); “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name” (Is 49:1).

The Faith Perspective

As we ponder the episodes outlined by the Gospel of this Vigil, a peculiarity strikes us: God’s way of accomplishing great works.

“The birth and naming of St. John the Baptist”, by Sano di Pietro – Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Events that changed the history of humanity

From man’s creation and life in Paradise down to the Final Judgement, this happening may be counted among one of the most important and transcendent for the history of humanity: St. John the Baptist, the greatest of those born of women, is conceived by a barren mother; moreover, when his parents were already of an advanced age – details that mark the event as entirely prodigious. The very announcement of his conception and birth are shrouded in mystery; St. Elizabeth is assisted in childbirth by the Virgin Mary, who is herself in the third month of the gestation of the Child Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity Incarnate.

But the Precursor does not come into the world surrounded by the glory, splendour, and power that he now enjoys in eternity, and which would have elicited belief from those who heard him. Rather, he embarked on his mission clothed in camel skin; he fed on locusts, and revealed sui generis characteristics that demanded an act of faith of his contemporaries. All of these impressive particulars were clothed in normality, in the common course of life. While his relatives and neighbours had discussed these things among themselves, they did not seem to fully grasp their supernatural dimension.

Nowadays, thanks to hindsight and to the knowledge gleaned from two thousand years of Church Tradition, we more easily discern the mystical, miraculous, and extraordinary aspects of these events. And from them we draw a precious lesson: when God intervenes, He often does not reveal the entire magnitude of the occurrences that we witness. He acts this way to keep us in a state of earthly trial, without which we would live on proof, without the need for faith, thus losing the merit of its practice. For the just to live by faith (cf. Hb 2:4), He lets us cross the valleys of aridity (cf. Ps 83:7). Let us consider the verses chosen by the Liturgy for the Vigil of this Solemnity from this perspective.

God rewards a couple’s holiness

In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the priestly division of Abijah; and his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.

After setting the time frame for the narrated scene, the Evangelist briefly describes the main qualities of St. Zechariah and his wife St. Elizabeth, highlighting the only one that is truly essential, since it remains for eternity: to be righteous before God and faithfully obey all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. Beyond any human consideration, we can conclude that God’s gaze, in resting upon that holy couple, made them worthy of receiving the great miracle that He intended to accomplish, according to the commentary of St. Ambrose:

“One is the gaze of men and the other of God; men see the face, God, the heart. […] The perfect merit consists in being righteous before God.

The public humiliation of barrenness

But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Similar to other famous Old Testament figures such as Sarai (cf. Gn 16:1), Rebekah (cf. Gn 25:21), Rachel (cf. Gn 29:31), the wife of Manoah (cf. Jgs 13:2) or Hannah (cf. 1 Sm 1:5), Elizabeth, both by nature and advanced age, was unable to be a mother. Her condition, then, was one of maximum public humiliation (cf. Lk 1:25), for at that time – in stark contrast to today, in which bearing many children signifies a disaster for certain parents – numerous offspring was a sign of God’s blessings; the contrary was considered cause for shame and a sign of a chastisement from Heaven. The barren woman was considered a social pariah and often treated with disdain (cf. Gn 16:4; 1 Sm 1:6-7), which increased the couple’s suffering. This situation further highlighted God’s action in performing the miracle of the birth of St. John the Baptist, which subsequent events would confirm.

“The Annunciation to St. Zechariah”, by Pere Mates – Art Museum of Gerona (Spain)

This presents another important point that merits our consideration in today’s Liturgy: while we may face specific and evident obstacles, the will of God always prevails for the fulfilment of His designs, since for Him nothing is impossible (cf. Lk 1:37).

God chooses ceremonies to manifest Himself

Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. 10 Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense offering…

It was the custom among the priests to allocate the various roles for Temple worship by drawing lots. Every day, in the morning and afternoon, a priest would enter the Sancta to offer incense to God on the altar of incense, which stood before the Sancta sanctorum. Naturally, the more fervent of them would anxiously desire to be chosen, for it was a moment in which the bearer of the offering felt aided by graces and special consolations. With Zechariah, we see how God used this draw system to favour him in preparation for being the object of the grandiose manifestation that would soon unfold.

From the atrium, separated by the curtain which hid the holy place, the people prayerfully accompanied the ritual while a beautiful cloud of smoke formed, escaping through the veil; the fragrance of the incense, used in generous quantity, pervaded the entire setting. The faithful knew, from experience, that the ceremony was not a very lengthy one. But this time it was strangely prolonged…

11 …the Angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense.

Instead of communicating to him through a dream or appearing to him in his house or another place, the Angel St. Gabriel was sent to transmit the heavenly message to Zechariah at the precise moment in which he, glorifying God, went to renew the embers and fragrances upon the altar. In this way, he showed the value that we must attach to the altar of the Lord, at which Zechariah served, and how pleasing liturgical ceremony is to God. The Angel stationed himself on the right-hand side to further emphasize the importance of that event; appearing on the left would have been less noble and befitting, and, in front, he would have turned his back to the altar.

Zechariah and the Archangel St. Gabriel (detail) – Palais Dorotheum, Vienna

This detail also indicates the reward God has in store for those who draw close to Him, recollecting and isolating themselves in His presence, in an appropriate place, such as a chapel or alone in their room (cf. Mt 6:6), with the intention of praising Him. Whenever we experience need, we should not seek the solution in human effort, but rather in prayer. God knows how to communicate with us and to find a way to speak to our interior, through consolations or even mystical and extraordinary phenomena.

Fear resulting from lukewarmness

12 Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him.

In the Old Testament, the sudden apparition of an Angel awakened dread, for, according to common belief, such a grandiose happening spelled the immediate death of those who witnessed it (cf. Jgs 6:22-23; 13:21-22), as mentioned in a previous article. However, Zechariah’s perturbation and fear illustrates that he had fallen into a degree of lukewarmness in the fulfilment of his priestly duties, and that perhaps the “fervour of the novice” characteristic of beginners in the service of the Lord had waned. Had he been at the peak of enthusiasm, this would not have happened, the vision, on the contrary would have filled him with joy. Men fear Angels when they neglect to contemplate the supernatural and focus on the concrete analysis of events.

Being of priestly lineage, Zechariah was prepared to perform this ceremony and, on the earlier occasions that he entered to do so, he certainly felt the weight of the responsibility of being a mediator between God and the people. However, gradually, bogged down in the temptation that often besets those responsible for the sacred ministry, of becoming accustomed to routine and, as he knew the details of the rite by rote, he fulfilled his office with secondary attention, having lost the conviction of the grandeur of the act that he performed. Perhaps concerns with the petty problems of the day-to-day life of his time even induced him to speed up the ceremony with sights on efficiency… His reaction to the Angel’s announcement narrated in the verses following the passage chosen for this Vigil, shows Zechariah’s lack of faith in the picture unveiled by St. Gabriel (cf. Lk 1:18), and confirms the possibility of his tepidity.

We live in constant contact with the invisible world

The example of Zechariah awakens us to a reality which often slips our mind: accustomed as we are to operating according to strictly human parameters, we easily forget that God did not create a closed universe – a world distinct from the invisible world composed of spiritual creatures. The contrary is true. We are constantly surrounded by good and evil Angels, who form one society with humans. Catholic doctrine teaches us that the Angels are very numerous; St. Thomas, echoing the opinion of many Church Fathers, applies the evangelical parable of the one sheep that wanders off as the other ninety-nine remain in the field (cf. Mt 18:12; Lk 15:4-7) as the ratio between men and Angels. Thus, for each man, there are ninety-nine Angels, an uncountable number for our limited minds.

Now, both the Angels, with their good inspirations, as well as the demons, by means of temptation, exercise their role within the state of trial in which we are born, for we are merely passing through this life, to be tested here and to attain the glory of the beatific vision. Consequently, we should be careful not to act as though our existence played out on a merely natural plane. Rather, we must keep our gaze fixed on the horizons of faith, fully convinced that at every moment we are prey to the influence of the Angels or the demons.

Detail of “The Annunciation”, by Fra Angelico – Diocesan Museum, Cortona (Italy)

Duly prepared, when the supernatural makes itself felt in our lives, we will accept it with the naturalness with which the Blessed Virgin received the visit of St. Gabriel (cf. Lk 1:26- 38). She did not fear the angelic apparition; She was only afraid that accepting the praises of the Archangel might compromise her humility: “Hail, full of grace” (Lk 1:28); and thus the Gospel tells us that “She was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk 1:29).

God manifests His goodness

13 But the Angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.”

The “do not be afraid” addressed to Zechariah has a very different meaning from that which was later said to Our Lady (cf. Lk 1:30). While his state of soul was imperfect, as we saw, the Angel treated him with marked kindness, aiming to transmit to him a grace from God that would put him entirely at ease. He then showed him that there was no reason for him to fear, for he had come to transmit joyful news to him: God had heard his prayer!

Undoubtedly, as prescribed by the priestly role, each time that he was chosen for the incensing of the altar of incense, or for the offering of some sacrifice, Zechariah interceded for the people through prayer. According to the opinion of some authors, when the Angel appeared to him, he was praying particularly for the coming of the Messiah. However, others, including Maldonado,7 believe that he implored God that, besides all else, He have mercy on him and his wife, so that Elizabeth could have a son and both would be delivered from humiliation.

What was Zechariah’s degree of fervour in prayer at the moment when he was heeded? We can ponder whether God normally answers prayers when ardour reaches its peak or when it diminishes. He sometimes comes to our aid as devotion wanes, to keep us from losing all merit and to prove that He does not forget us. Nevertheless, we should be extremely faithful in our prayer life, keeping our enthusiasm enkindled and praying with constancy.

From this Gospel passage we can infer how God is pleased to choose the weak to accomplish extraordinary works, so that it is clear who is acting. Providence permitted the parents of St. John the Baptist to experience this plight so that, by asking with insistence, God would manifest His power and impart to the birth of that child a mystical, prophetic, and grandiose character, showing it to be the fruit of divine action and not of natural laws. Had Elizabeth been the mother of many children, perhaps she would not have marked history by becoming part of the Gospel.

We, ideally, should likewise place ourselves in God’s hands, with an attitude of dependence and entire confidence, for the solution to all problems – especially those which seem irresolvable – will come not from our efforts, but from the intervention of Providence

A child great before the Lord

St. John the Baptist in childhood – Church of St. John the Baptist, Figueiró dos Vinhos (Portugal)

14 “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. John will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.  He will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn their hearts toward their children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”

The simple news of the birth of a son was enough to fill the couple with great joy. However, this son was called to the highest designs. The Angel’s words, announcing the very special vocation and holiness of the child’s life, were a sketch of the prophetic traits of the Precursor, for he would lead many Israelites to the Lord. Among these lofty characteristics would be that of possessing “the spirit and power of Elijah.” Thus, the same level of graces, spirit and mentality as the prophet par excellence possessed, had been given to John the Baptist, endowing him with the strength to march at the head of the people.

“Indeed, both [Elijah and John]” – St. Bede comments – “lived a celibate life; both were crudely clothed; both spent their lives in solitude; both were heralds of the truth; both suffered persecution from the king and queen for defending justice: the former, from Ahab and Jezebel; the latter from Herod and Herodias; Elijah, so as not to die in the hands of the impious was taken up into Heaven in a chariot of fire; John the Baptist, so as not to be vanquished by the ungodly in the battle of the spirit, was called to perfect martyrdom for the Kingdom of Heaven.”

It could be asked why St. John the Baptist would convert the hearts of the parents to the children and not that of the children to the parents. With an eye to creating favourable conditions for the acceptance of the Messiah’s arrival, the Precursor would preach His coming from a very different perspective from that which until then had been considered by the Chosen People: a new teaching, endowed with authority (cf. Mk 1:27), from within which new generations would be born and, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, would be interiorly transformed. The fathers could also receive this influence of grace, as long as they would abandon the old erroneous concepts and adopt the new ones. For this they would have to convert their hearts with regard to their children.

St. John the Baptist and St. Elijah, by Andrea di Bonaiuto – Basilica of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence (Italy)

The “Eliatic Line”

The fact that the child would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah” clearly shows the constitution of a lineage linking the prophet par excellence to the Precursor of the Messiah, and uniting them by an analogous mission.

We may well affirm that this “Eliatic line,” which has its origin in Elijah’s manner, in his patience, his humility and his zeal for God’s cause, could be said to extend to all providential men who, like John the Baptist, fulfil their historic role “with the spirit and power of Elijah.” They carry on through time illuminating the struggles of the Church across centuries. These prophets are chosen and formed by the divine will to mark the horizons of history, so that the holiness, discernment, strength, definition, determination, impetus, impact, and other gifts that adorn their souls are privileges granted by God, because He wills this, in His constant desire to communicate with men.

In our turbulent times, which resemble a long, dark night, we should ask for this spirit of Elijah to shine once again over the world. And just as St. John the Baptist announced the arrival of the Saviour, we will see the triumph of Mary proclaimed, and the founding of a new and wonderful historical era.