“He is to be called John.”
Thursday, 24 June 2021 – the feast of the birth of John the Baptist.
Today is the feast day of the birth of John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus. Luke is the only gospel that gives us an account of John’s birth and origins, though all the gospels mention him. Luke is also the only evangelist who links John to Jesus as a cousin. In Luke’s account, which is quite lengthy, several events precede the birth of John. Among them are the angel’s appearance and the striking dumb of Zechariah, John’s father, Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, her kinswoman, and the great prayers of the Magnificat and the Benedictus.
When John is born, we read that the parents are adamant that “his name is John”. The meaning of the name is “Yahweh is gracious”, and it seems to have been a common name in the time of Jesus. One of the sons of Zebedee was called John, and he is associated with the fourth gospel.
However, it was not a common name in his family, as evidenced by verse 1:61 “but no one in your family has that name”. In those times, as in ours until recently, family names passed from one generation to another, often according to strict nomenclature rules. Zechariah insists, however, that the boy be called John, and of course, this prefigures the events of later: “What will this child turn out to be?”
There are many mysteries around the figure of John the Baptist. What was his exact relationship with Jesus? Was Jesus a follower of John? What did John think of Jesus? Many of these are impossible to answer at this distance in time. That he existed and impacted the people and events of his time, there can be no doubt. That Jesus knew him and was influenced by him also seems certain. But Jesus seems to have charted his own course. Though he took much from John’s stark messaging and ascetic witness, he was never the striking, demanding and uncompromising figure that John was to his contemporaries. However, the witness and the preaching of John definitely opened the way for the preaching and ministry of Jesus, and many of John’s followers eventually became followers of Jesus. Perhaps the greatest tribute to John is his words about Jesus: “I am not fit to undo the undo the strap of his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Luke 3:16) He will be forever remembered as the precursor, the one who gave way to Jesus and left the stage to him.
For each of us, the question posed by John is: are we able to point to Jesus? Or do we point to ourselves? Are we able to be witnesses to the love of God and his greatness and not to ourselves? Do we have the humility to stand back and allow God to take the centre of the stage, or do we want to take all the glory?