The celebration of the birth of John the Baptist underlines John’s unique place as the last in a long line of prophets who had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. Unlike his predecessors, John would announce the fulfilment of the promise, pointing to the Christ in their midst.
The celebration of the Baptist’s birth is also an invitation to become like John, to both acknowledge the Christ in our midst and become his heralds to our own world.
Today’s passage from the Prophet Isaiah is a beautiful reflection on the manner in which God prepares the prophet, and indeed every servant, for his purpose. “The Lord called me before I was born, from my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.”
We tend to think of life as a succession of chance and unrelated events. In the unfolding of God’s saving plan nothing is left to chance. The prophet, from the first stirring of life in his mother’s womb, had been intended for God’s definite purpose. Although ours will be a very different role from that of John the Baptist, we should never doubt that, from the beginning of our lives, the Lord has intended some definite purpose for our lives. It is in prayer and quiet reflection that we begin to discern that definite purpose.
Sometimes that purpose is not immediately evident. Like Isaiah’s servant, we will frequently feel that God’s purpose is hidden from us.
“The Lord said to me: ‘You are my servant in whom I shall be glorified’ while I was thinking:
‘I have toiled in vain, I have exhausted myself for nothing.’
“John’s birth, when at last it came, had been set against the seemingly disappointed hopes of his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah. They had longed for children, only for the passing years to mock their hopes. Disappointment can either destroy our lives, or, if surrendered to God, become the occasion of his grace.
“Zechariah, do not be afraid, your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you must name him John.”
Self-centred disappointment is sterile. The disappointment surrendered to God bears fruit.
Luke’s Gospel records the joy that accompanied the birth of John the Baptist. The apparently insignificant detail of his naming is important, and its significance applies to every life. Those assembled for the circumcision and naming had their own ideas of what John would become. They wanted him to follow in the family expectations, to be named after one of the family in whose footsteps he would follow.
Zechariah, by naming the child John, the name that God had given him, insisted that the life of his child would become the fulfilment of God’s purpose.
In many selfish ways we are tempted to name the purpose of our lives, thereby hoping to secure our own happiness. Zechariah allowed God to answer his own disappointment, and to name the purpose of his child’s life. “And you, little child, you shall be called Prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him.”
Like John the Baptist, we have been chosen for some definite purpose. In the broad sense we share John’s calling. What matters is not what we want out of life, but what God can achieve through and in our lives. John’s life became a proclamation of the presence of Christ. Let us pray that we, in our turn, might become a proclamation of a presence so much greater than ourselves.