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Birthday of St John the Baptist (24.06.18)
Genetic inheritance is an established fact. A person’s religious inheritance is not always so identifiable. The Jewish people must rank among those most ancestrally conscious of their religious forebears; treasuring their deeply rooted ancestral faith in God, despite repeated persecution and their own failures.
Normally Sundays are reserved to God, but this Sunday the Church focuses on the birth of the Jew whom we know as John the Baptist. Jesus himself extols John’s role: “I tell you, among those born of women, there is none there is none greater than John yet even the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28)
For the Jew, lineage is significant. The extract of Luke’s Gospel read on this Sunday to mark John’s birth and naming includes the following:
“When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her," There is no one among your relatives who has this name."
There is no detail of whom the ‘they’ was composed as in: “When ‘they’ came on the eighth day ..” other than neighbours and relatives. Might one of the ‘they’ have been Elizabeth’s cousin from Nazareth, herself an expectant mother now three months into her pregnancy, called Mary? It would be reasonable to assume that Mary would have stayed for the birth of her cousin’s child, particularly after the powerful interaction between each child in the womb of their respective mothers at the mothers’ initial exchange of greetings (Luke 1:40-45).
The three months Mary, the young Jewish pregnant girl betrothed but as yet unmarried, spent in the household of her much older cousin must have been enormously supportive as well as educative as Mary became more comfortable with her miraculous confinement. Zechariah was unable to speak having been shocked into silence at the prospect of parenthood. Today, too, people can be rendered speechless by shock. But a silenced faith can speak loudly as the lives of many martyred saints continue to exemplify.
Mary would have known of Zechariah’s distinguished pedigree as a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. All male descendants of Aaron, estimated at some 20,000, were Jewish priests. Mary would have known that Elizabeth, too, was a direct descendant of Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s marriage was ideal in terms of religious lineage except that they were childless. This would have rendered them as ‘wounded’ in the eyes of their community. Mary would have benefitted from the exemplary religious life led by her hosts whom, previously, she would have visited. She would have seen for herself the way in which they bore their pain of childlessness. Elizabeth’s pregnancy appears to have been news for Mary at The Annunciation. Understandably, Mary set out without delay to be with her cousin now ‘in her sixth month’.
Mary would have witnessed the naming of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son, John. Also, Zechariah’s recovery of speech and his proclamation of praise to God, ‘The Benedictus’, which forms part of the daily Prayer of the Church at Vespers. Supported by such exemplary holiness, Mary returned to Nazareth and thence to Bethlehem whilst continuing her own confinement.
This Sunday’s celebration of the birth and naming of John the Baptiser is a wondrous event in itself. When we place Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus, in the frame, the surrounding events of John’s birth and naming take on even greater significance.
Each person’s birth is as unique as is each person. In each life, be it short or long, there are multiple defining moments mostly beginning with a person’s birth. John the Baptiser’s significant defining moments began before his natural conception with the announcement of his impending entry into the world and his naming.
Likewise, the Angel Gabriel, at the Annunciation, initiated the significant defining moments in the life of the Son of God-made-Man child whom God invited Mary to conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel also gave Mary’s future child his name, Jesus.
The significance of life’s defining moments may not be fully apparent in the moment of their occurrence, that may only be realised later over time. Also, an individual’s personal defining moments may continue to impact the lives of others not only during that person’s life but also subsequent to their death. For example, within the Christian and even wider community, the life of St. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta continues to inspire people all over the world.
Jesus Christ, God Incarnate and the world’s most famous Jew, has adopted Christians, those Baptised in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as his sisters and brothers be they, formerly, Jew or Gentile.
Jesus is our real ancestor. The closer we choose to draw ourselves to him the closer we will become enlivened with his religious imprint, his religious ‘gene’ as it were. Closeness to Jesus also brings us a closeness with his countless disciples over the past two thousand plus years as well as his disciples today.
We can visualise ancestors never met and never seen in photographs or paintings. We know them from what survives from their writings, their possessions, the places they lived and the work they did. So too with Jesus of Nazareth. We know Jesus through his Living Word, The Gospels, and the Books of the New Testament whose authorship we believe to be inspired by the Holy Spirit guiding their human authors. We know Jesus, too, through our Communion with him in the Eucharist: “Take this all of you and eat of it for this is my Body given which will be given up for you.”
Jesus’ Word and Life is imprinted on our life through the Baptism and Confirmation we receive. He calls us to be the living expression of himself in this damaged world, despite our status as recovering sinners. This is why Jesus longs for us to make it our priority to live each day expanding our memory of him and walking, albeit it falteringly, in his footsteps. The implementation of this call and invitation is summed up in the Ten Commandments. If these are not readily to mind then maybe this is a sign that we need to invite God to re-enter them in our hearts which may have become too stone-like! As Jesus teaches, the summary of the Ten is in the first two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31) Refreshing our awareness of these Commandments on a daily basis – in full or in summary – will help us move more securely in the treacherous world of today. It will also enable us to reveal to others the depth of our spiritual lineage.