Gift and contradiction
Luke 1: 57-66
John the Baptist was an extraordinary prophet, teacher and friend of Jesus. In following him, and then to the very end, Jesus learned many things about God. For Jesus’ disciples John’s importance was such that the Gospel, only because of him and of Jesus, recounts the Annunciation, the birth, the prophetic ministry and the preaching as a result of which they were killed.
Like every passage in the Gospels this one too on the birth of John is not a chronicle but far more. It relates the invisible involvement of the mercy of the God of Israel in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, an elderly couple, people faithful to the Lord who bore, without faltering, their sorrowful lack of children.
Elizabeth, seen in her barrenness and in her faith, is the first woman and the first example of poverty who opens Luke’s Gospel and who is good news for the poor, men and women alike. In the Bible the many barren, hence humiliated, women are there as precious witnesses of the Lord’s intervention in their impossible yet promised sons of whom the Lord stands in need.
In John’s birth the neighbours and kinsmen understand that God has exalted his mercy in Elizabeth. A protagonist of this birth, as of the entire life of John and of the Gospel which begins with him, is the Lord’s mercy, that eternal mercy promised to Abraham.
Elizabeth and Zechariah are there to teach, console and correct us. They are teachers of freedom and parrhesia for us in their attitude to family and religious traditions. By her “Not so”, Elizabeth firmly opposes those who wish to impose on her son the name of his father, Zechariah, in accordance with the custom, and refers to the Angel’s words: “He shall be called John”. But they would not believe her. Elizabeth, the first woman in the Gospel, announced the words of the angel in which she believed, and she was not believed, exactly as was to happen to the women at the end of the Gospel: they believed, announced and were not believed.
Zechariah, the priest who was first rendered unable to speak and was then exultant, also teaches us a lesson. He and his wife, descendants of Aaron, would ultimately have been able to pass on to their son the priestly authority and honour. But now the son who God’s mercy has granted them will go against all their expectations: he will not be a priest but a prophet, and indeed a great prophet. For Zechariah, accepting the words of the Angel Gabriel meant accepting that God’s gift, which was this son, would be a great renouncement for him: he would not be able to hand down to John his priestly authority. This great struggle removed from him his power of speech. He had to accept a real diminishment. By being in the desert and not in the temple, John initiated Jesus to the understanding that for his disciples Aaron’s priesthood had ended for ever – since the Lord was in need of incarnation and not of mediation. Zechariah, struggling to adhere to God’s word, teaches us that for us the gift of God is always a miraculous fulfilment and also, sooner or later, a great contradiction.
The diminishment which John the Baptist was to recognize before Jesus as real truth and joy is here already foreshadowed as the vocation of his father in the presence of his own son, a fatherhood that for Zechariah is kenosis. This will be the real inheritance which his son John will be able to accept. He is to be a prophet, to grow up and to be strengthened in the desert, and will live his vocation as the voice that cries out God’s word in the desert. By giving up the temple, John would enable those who were excluded from the temple to hear the word of God. The Gospel begins already foreshadowing the end of the temple and of all religious exclusion, which is the cornerstone of all sacredness and of every space and sacred role. Indeed, publicans and sinners would go to John the Baptist, no longer barred from hearing the word of God. And Jesus would bring to extraordinary fruition the lessons he learned from him: Jesus, who always and only opposed every exclusion, as well as welcoming with compassion and giving peace to all suffering and outcast humanity, will not exclude women from his community either!
Edited by the Sisters of Bose
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