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Bind them as a sign on your hand (Deut 6:8)

Next Sunday’s Gospel

The Gospel readings are often identical in the
Revised Common Lectionary

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Luke 1:57   Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

Luke 1:59   On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Luke 1:80   The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. s.

Initial Observations

The birth of John the Baptist is recounted only in Luke’s Gospel. The fact of his birth is undisputed (!). However, the manner of the telling closely reflects the theology of Luke and, indeed, his anxiety both to relate and to distinguish John the forerunner and Jesus the coming one.


Kind of writing

Chiefly, this a birth and naming narrative. Conventionally, the life story (bios) of an important person would always include signs and portents at the birth. The unexpected affirmation of the name by the mute (and deaf) Zechariah triggers his recovery of speech, causing tremendous wonder and anticipation. Finally, the neighbours asked the right question about John.
Birth: vv. 57-58
Circumcision: v. 59a
Naming: vv. 59b-66
Prophecy of Zechariah: vv. 67-79
Summary: v. 80.

Our reading omits the canticle of Zechariah but it is of obvious significance for the overall telling.


Old Testament background

The women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:17)

The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the Lord blessed him. (Judg 13:24)

When I became a man I married a woman, a member of our own family, and by her I became the father of a son whom I named Tobias. (Tob 1:9)

Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people. (1 Sam 2:26)

The hand of the Lord
This expression is often negative (e.g. Judges 2:15). In certain contexts, especially in the prophets, it can also be positive (e.g. 1 Kings 4:46). The positive use is frequent in Ezekiel (Ezek 1:3; 3:14, 22; 8:1; 33:22; 37:1; 40:1).

Cf. And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand. (Acts 13:11)

Luke uses the positive sense, of course, as found in LXX Ex 13:3; 1 Chron 4:10; Ps 74:9 [= 75:8 English].


New Testament Foreground

The continued existence of a baptist movement is attested in the Acts and elsewhere.

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptised?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptised with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— altogether there were about twelve of them. (Acts 19:1–7)


St Paul

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Rom 9:1–5)


Brief Commentary

Verse 57 The language imitates the Old Testament. Even though the report of the actual birth is succinct, the full story is longer than the report of Jesus’ birth.

Verse 58 Given the silence of Zechariah and the seclusion of Elizabeth, the neighbours also learn of God’s mercy (Luke 1:50, 54, 58, 72, 78) and rejoice (Luke 1:14, 44, 47, 58; 2:10) at the double blessing of son born to an aged couple.

Verse 59 Luke shows the parents of John fulfilling the Law. Naming was joined to circumcision, the rite by which a boy was joined to the people of God. Naming after the father was a custom in some quarters.

Verse 60 It was the father’s role to name the child and so acknowledge his paternity (Tob 1:9 above). The intervention by Elizabeth is forced by the silence of her husband. At the same time, naming by mothers is attested in the Hebrew Bible (see above). In the telling, this is regarded as a miracle because otherwise how could she have known the message of the angel?

Verse 61 This natural reaction triggers in turn the application to Zechariah.

Verse 62 The word for dumb can also include the idea of being deaf (Hab. 2:18–19 LXX; 3 Macc. 4:16). Hence the need to signal to Zechariah.

Verse 63 The husband confirms his wife’s miraculous information, which in turn triggers the reaction of amazement (Luke 1:21, 63; 2:18, 33).

Verse 64 Another miraculous sign: the father recovers his power of speech. He will use it well in the canticle which follows.

Verse 65 Fear here means “holy awe” rather than fright. Again, it is frequent in these stories (Luke 1:12–13, 30, 50, 65; 2:9–10). Fear and wide discussion indicate the importance of what has taken place.

Verse 66 There are three notes here. First of all, pondering — prayerful mulling over something. The Greek is rather expressive: they lay it on their hearts. A related, slightly different, expression is used of Mary: she preserved these things in her heart (Luke 2:51). Secondly, a question is asked about the future of this child — the question about John. Finally, using a biblicism, we are told that the “hand of the Lord” was with him. Luke tells us that the identity and destiny of this child are in the hands of God.

Verse 80 The closing verse reminds us of Samson and Samuel (see above). In the wilderness: this does not mean that John was a follower of the Essene movement. Rather, the wilderness is the place of testing and encounter with God. Before turning to the story of Jesus’ birth, Luke rounds off this section while looking forward to the adult career of John (see the ringing introduction in Luke 3). Luke discretely contrasts the evolution of the baptist with that of the Messiah: And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour. (Luke 2:52) The chart below indicates some of the points of comparison and contrast between Jesus and John in Luke 1-4.


Pointers for prayer

1. The birth of John the Baptist was an occasion of great joy for family and friends.  Recall occasions when you celebrated the arrival of a baby. What thoughts and feelings did you have? Use the memory to reflect on the wonder of your own life and give thanks for it.

2. There is often a story behind the name given to a child.  What story lies behind your name? Perhaps it says something of the hopes your parents had for you, or the memories they wanted you to retain.

3. “What will this child become?” The Baptist was to become a herald pointing the way to Jesus. In our turn we are also called to point people towards a better way of life. Recall times when you were able to point somebody in a direction that helped. Give thanks for those who have done the same for you.

4. The child grew and the hand of the Lord was with him. As you look back on your own growth and development, were there things that happened about which you now say “the hand of the Lord was with me there”?


Prayer

God most high, from his mother’s womb you destined John the Baptist to preach repentance, to challenge hardened hearts, and so to hear salvation.
Grant us to embrace the conversion he proclaimed and to follow the one whose coming he announced, our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Thought for the day and prayer

A birth is never “just” a birth. Each new life is always a gift and, at the same time, an affirmation, a sign of hope. Even in difficult circumstances, joy is the spontaneous response and with such joy comes a new sense of being more alive, more ourselves, more “graced”, with a raised awareness of God-with-us. Parents wonder always “what will become of this child?” What holds for each of us was also true of John the Baptist, only all the more so, as we see in Luke’s account. He was the last of the old and the first of the new, a prophet between the times — not unlike ourselves!

Prayer
As we continue to grow strong in spirit, Lord, help us to become the person whose real potential is known to you alone. May the hand of your blessing be upon us all, now and evermore.