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Solemnity Of The Birth Of St. John The Baptizer

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger

This year the celebration of the birth of John the Baptizer replaces the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The fact that the Baptizer’s birth outranks a Sunday reveals the importance of John’s role in salvation history. The first reading is from a part of the oracles of a prophet called Second Isaiah, from the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-55. Embedded in these chapters scholars have identified four poems or songs which speak or sing (rap) about the birth, life, mission, death, and exaltation of a servant of the Lord. The poems are known as the Servant Songs. There has been a long debate about the identity of the servant. Mostly the servant is an individual, but sometimes the poem makes it clear that the servant of the Lord is Israel as a nation. When these poems speak of the servant as an individual, the most likely candidate as servant of the Lord is that very prophet, Second Isaiah.


This man was active in the prophetic ministry to Israel during the exile in Babylon (today Iraq). Although there were groups of people of the Kingdom of Judah, including their king, taken into exile by the Babylonians in 597 B.C., the main exile begins with the destruction by the Babylonian army of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 B.C.  About 540 B.C. this unnamed prophet, Second Isaiah, arises in Babylon proclaiming the end of the exile and a return to Jerusalem and Judah. Let us assume that today’s first reading speaks of this prophet. The Lord destined him for his mission before he was born, “From my mother’s womb he pronounced my name.” The Lord is said to have protected him, held him in his hand, sharpened him like an arrow and kept him in his quiver. The Lord gave him this identity, “You are my servant in whom I shall be glorified.” His mission in life – to bring Jacob (Israel) back to God. His mission extended beyond Israel, “I will make you a light to the nations (Gentiles), so that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth.”


How God would make this salvation happen is given more detail in the third and fourth Servant Songs. The servant and his mission were rejected. He was tortured and killed by his own people, but he never lost confidence in the Lord. His death was accepted by the Lord as an atonement for the sins of his people. He was rewarded by being exalted to great heights. Christian interpretation understood these songs, when they spoke of an individual, as speaking of Jesus’ conception, birth, mission, death, and resurrection. These four poems served the authors of our gospels and the theology of St. Paul as foundational material for the composition of their written documents. Today’s liturgy applies them not to Jesus but to John the Baptizer, in phrases like this, “The Lord called me from my birth. From my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” 


The Responsorial Psalm (139) was chosen because it expresses, like the Servant Songs, the Lord’s intimate knowledge of each of his human creations. “You formed my most inmost being, knit me together in my mother’s womb.” For this intimate activity of God, the people respond with gratitude, “I praise you for I am wonderfully made.” The second reading is a sermon Luke attributes to St. Paul on his first missionary journey through what is today central Turkey. The reason for the selection of this reading for today’s feast – it summarizes the mission of John the Baptizer. “John heralded his (Jesus’) arrival proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” Then John proclaimed his unworthiness to be even a slave of Jesus, “I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.”

The gospel describes the birth, reception into the world, circumcision and naming of John the Baptizer. An elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, had no children. Luke’s composition bases their plight on another childless couple, Abraham and Sarah. How the conception of John and the pregnancy of Elizabeth occurred, see Luke 1:5-24. The great moment has arrived. A son is born. The joy of the elderly parents is shared by their neighbors, “They rejoiced with her, that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her.” Luke depicts the parents as pious Jews faithful to the Torah, which commanded that a male child be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, Genesis 17:12 and Leviticus 12:3. The ritual of circumcision included the naming of the child. Those gathered wanted to call the child Zechariah, or as we would say today, Junior. Zechariah was still a deafmute since his encounter with the angel Gabriel announcing the child’s future birth and mandating the name John for the boy. Elizabeth knew about the annunciation to Zechariah and the name given by the angel, and how her husband was punished by the angel for his unbelief.

One thing was clear in Elizabeth’s mind – no more messing with the angel Gabriel. Therefore she said, “John is his name.” They had problems with that because no one in the family had that name, (as if that should matter!).  They had to ask the deafmute father. He knew how dangerous angels could be when questioned. He had had enough. Therefore he wrote on a tablet. “John is his name.” An appropriate name since the Hebrew yohanan means “God has been gracious.”

Zechariah was rewarded for his obedience, “His mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke praising God.” Luke composed one of his typical reactions to an event in his gospel,

“Fear (awe, reverence toward God) came upon all.” Wide public discussion followed through-out Judea (the home province of Zechariah and Elizabeth).  Luke reached into the Old Testament to find models (Abraham and Sarah) for his description of Zechariah and Elizabeth. He reaches again to this source to describe the growth and development of the boy John, “The child grew and became strong in Spirit…,” echoing words written of mighty Samson in Judges 13:24-25.