Happy feast day!
Today, we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. And, boy! What a special feast day it is! In fact, it’s so special that it’s celebrated over two days… yesterday was the Solemnity of the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, and this is the actual day where his birth is celebrated!
And what a special day it is! So special that the Gospel of Luke opens up and begins by telling the story, not of the Annunciation, but rather of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth!
So, in honor of today, I would like to feature the gospel from both the vigil and today, which is the official day of the nativity! Plus, a couple of other parts from the gospel, since clearly you can’t go wrong with the bible…
Here is the gospel from the Vigil mass:
4so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.5In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. 7But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. 8Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, 9according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. 10Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, 11the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. 12Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. 13But 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. 14And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, 16and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
This reading certainly ends on a happy note, doesn’t it? Yet, alas! Zechariah doesn’t believe in the angel and doubts the Word! So, he asks for a sign, since he is incredulous that such a thing can happen with him. So, God gives him a sign…
18Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. 20But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.”21Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. 22But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute. 23Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home.
After this, the gospel shifts over to Mary! We hear how the angel came to her in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the Annunciation happens, and Mary rushes over to help her cousin, who is probably about 100 miles away from her. Then, the Visitation occurs, in which Mary greets Elizabeth, and John the Baptist gets his first official gospel appearance in which he leaps for joy at the mere presence of Jesus. Mary praises God in her beautiful Magnificat and then, for three months, she helps out Elizabeth before heading home.
And so, tradition states that she helped deliver John the Baptist! Which kind of makes sense… after all, Luke the Evangelist met with the Virgin Mary and learned her stories, which is how he was able to write the infancy narrative that he did. And, as an eyewitness, she would be able to relate to the following story, today’s (extended) gospel, which tells of the birth of John the Baptist, including Zechariah’s song of praise!
57When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, 60but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.” 61But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” 62So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. 63He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. 65Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. 66All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.67Then Zechariah his father, filled with the holy Spirit, prophesied, saying:68 “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.69 He has raised up a horn for our salvationwithin the house of David his servant,70even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old:71salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,72to show mercy to our fathersand to be mindful of his holy covenant73and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father,and to grant us that, 74rescued from the hand of enemies,without fear we might worship him 75in holiness and righteousnessbefore him all our days.76And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,77to give his people knowledge of salvationthrough the forgiveness of their sins,78because of the tender mercy of our Godby which the daybreak from on high will visit us79to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,to guide our feet into the path of peace.”80The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.
As you can imagine, this is a very dramatic story! And so, it is fitting that there are many beautiful art pieces about this event. Check out this one, by Tintoretto:
It is an artwork depicting what having a baby probably looked like in the 16th century to a woman of higher class.
In this picture, Mary, denoted with a halo around her head, holds a baby (also with a halo!) and swaddles him while a nursemaid nurses him. Midwives and nurses rush about, holding rags to swaddle the baby and pans of water to clean up the mess which comes after birth. One nurses soothes Elizabeth, who is tiredly resting on a bed after what is probably an exhausting labor.
But the person who steals the scene is Zechariah. While Mary holds the newborn gently and wraps him up with swaddling clothes — something that she will do for Jesus in a short six months time — Zechariah steps forth dramatically, his fingertips touching his chest as if he is repressing a song.
And, when people finally ask him to name the child and after he writes the name, “John,” he will explode into song, praising and thanking the Lord for all that the Lord has done and for all that the Lord will do.
So, have a lovely feast day, and don’t forget to praise God just a little more today!