Q. 429: Why is John the Baptist’s “birth” highlighted today (Luke 1:57-66, 80)? Surely his life events and his death are more significant than his birth?
I think it interesting that on Christmas day we think, “Happy birthday, Jesus!” In September once again we think, “Happy birthday, Mary!” But in June, do we think to say happy birthday to John, or do other “vivid” images of John crowd those greetings out of our mind? Yet, today is exactly what this Feast commemorates: the birth of one whom Jesus classified this way: “of all the children born of women, there is no one greater than John.”
In the Old Testament classes I teach, students occasionally encounter instances where a person’s name is changed by God. The significance of a change in name is implicit and explicit: an encounter with God radically changes a person, immediately at that time and also as a life direction. Examples that you will recognize are: Abraham (from Abram); Israel (from Jacob); Rock (from Peter); and Paul (from Saul). Additional examples are found in today’s readings. Isaiah is given his name from his mother’s womb by the Lord, and John the Baptist is given a name by an angel that is different from the usual and traditional duplication of names (i.e., from father-to-son, or grandfather-to-grandson). Hebrew names were significant because oftentimes they expressed a religious belief, or were linked to an event that occurred at or near that time. For example, the names given the sons of the prophets Isaiah and Hosea expressed the content of their prophetic teaching. Even conquered kings were given different names by the stronger king, to reflect the new “vassal” relationship.
“John” means “Yahweh is gracious.” What could be more gracious or grace-filled than the coming salvation event, graciously announced by the herald John the Baptist? It was a life-changing event that is singularly unique. For being faithful to his Calling, today we say gratefully, “Happy birthday, John!”
KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! The assumption of a new name at Baptism was common among early Christians, and continues to this day. It signifies both a devotional relationship to the person whose name is adopted, and more importantly, a radical change in the life of the person baptized. Baptism has effected the forgiveness of all original and actual sins, thus symbolizing the reality of turning away from a former life without Christ, to a life with Christ as sons of God (CCC #1214, 1213).
Prepare the way of the Lord
The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had been told by God that they had been called to serve God by preparing the way for the Lord’s coming. They bore witness to God’s promise of salvation for his people Israel and for all nations. We see today that John the Baptist too was called from his mother’s womb to this same task of preparing the way of the Lord. In our baptism we were also called to this task of preparing for the Lord to come to the people we encounter in our lives.
Lord God, our Father, give us the grace to “preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”