Luke’s gospel today recalls in detail the birth of John the Baptist before the birth Jesus and his later mission. “The hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1:80)
Just as Luke recognizes the role of Mary and Joseph in the birth and raising of Jesus, he recognizes the role of Elizabeth and Zechariah in the birth and raising of John. Each help John grow and become strong in spirit. However lonely and independent he appears later in the gospels, John was influenced by them and the extended family that surrounded him from his birth.
Luke’s gospel often see one person’s fidelity influencing another. “The hand of the Lord was with him,” Luke writes, but human hands were on him as well.
John had faith like his mother Elizabeth who recognized the Spirit’s presence in her pregnant relation Mary visiting from Nazareth. John later would point out the Lamb of God among all those who came to the Jordan River for baptism.
He had faith like his father Zechariah who devoutly celebrated the mysteries of God in the temple of Jerusalem as a priest. At his birth, Zechariah signs away the gift of his name– and probably his hope that his son would follow in his steps. John would have a different calling. At the Jordan River, John called pilgrims to prepare the way of the Lord in their own hearts as they made their way to the temple and the Holy City, Jerusalem.
Undoubtedly, John was a unique figure, a messenger from God, a voice in the desert preparing the Lord’s way. But there were faithful people behind him, as they are behind us.
Don’t forget either his relative, Mary of Nazareth. At the end of his account of her visit with Elizabeth, Luke mentions “Mary stayed with her for three months, then returned to her home.” (Luke 1:56) That would mean she stayed on till the birth of John, wouldn’t it?
I don’t see Mary in the icon of John’s birth (above), but she must have been there. Were there other times too these families met? Artists portray the children playing together later. They could be right. We influence one another more than we think.
Mary concludes her visit to Elizabeth today praising God, who is “mighty and has done great things to me.” Her Magnificat is part of St. Luke’s beautifully crafted narrative of the infancy of Jesus Christ in the first two chapters of his gospel, which we read preparing for the Christmas feast.
After John the Baptist’s birth, his father Zechariah also praises God. “Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel. He has come to his people and set them free.”–his Benedictus. (Luke, 1:67-79)
In the church’s evening prayers each day we pray Mary’s “Magnificat” thanking God for the blessings of the day. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.God has come to the help of his servant Israel, remembering his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” Like Mary, we rejoice in God’s promises and wait for their fulfillment.
In the church’s morning prayers each day we pray Zechariah’s Benedictus, which ends the silence and darkness of night and welcomes a blessed day. “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet in the way of peace.”
It’s interesting the way the gospel mysteries become our mysteries. No matter what the day, we end it singing God’s praises with Mary. No matter what the day, the Dawn which is Jesus Christ brings God’s blessings to our world and guidance for our steps. Like Zechariah, who came slowly to belief, we pray his song each morning.
Commentators on Luke’s gospel say that Luke probably uses Jewish Christian prayers, applying them to Zechariah and Mary. The New American Bible says: “ Because there is no specific connection of the canticle to the context of Mary’s pregnancy and her visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat (with the possible exception of v 48) may have been a Jewish Christian hymn that Luke found appropriate at this point in his story.”
The Magnificat and the Benedictus, attributed appropriately to Mary and Zechariah, are our prayers too. Daily prayers.
Let me not doubt your promises, your tender mercies, but let me rejoice in them as Mary and Zechariah did, and look for their fulfillment, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation to Mary, read today at Mass, follows the announcement of the birth of John to Zechariah in yesterday’s advent readings. An angel announces that Jesus will come as her son, but Mary receives the angel so differently than the priest Zechariah. (Luke 1, 5-25,)
In the temple, where great mysteries are celebrated, the priest won’t believe he and his wife can conceive a child. They’re too old. He doubts.
In Nazareth, a small town in Galilee and an unlikely place for a major revelation, the angel approaches Mary with a message far more difficult to grasp. “ The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Mary believes and does not doubt, and so by God’s power she conceives a Son who will be born in Bethlehem. “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word,”
The Annunciation scene pictured above was placed at the beginning of a medieval prayer book with the words beneath it in latin: “Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.” Most medieval artists assumed that Mary was at home in prayer when the angel came and so they put this scene at the beginning of an hour of prayer. Prayer enables Mary to believe and accept what would come.
Isn’t that true for us all? As with Mary, prayer helps us discern and say yes to what God wills. “Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.”
My community, the Passionists, still begins the prayers of the liturgy of the hours by reciting the Angelus, a prayer that repeats this gospel story. “The angel of the Lord declared to Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit….”
Prayer opens the way to mysteries beyond us. As a woman of faith, Mary knew that, and we learn from her.
At Mass today we pray: “O God, grant that by Mary’s example, we may in humility hold fast to your will.” Open our eyes to see and our lips to say yes.
The priest Zachariah goes into the temple bearing incense to worship the Lord , “In the days of King Herod”. An angel appears next to the altar of incense and says to him. “Your prayer has been heard,..Your wife will bear you a son.”
Surely, the old priest was no longer praying for a son. Childbearing was over for his wife and himself. The promise of new life was long gone; there’s no hope for a child.
But the angel promises a child “great in the eyes of the Lord” to be called John, who will more than fulfill their hopes, turning “many of the children of Israel to their God.”
The old priest doubts and is punished with silence. He won’t speak until after the child is born. Then he speaks again, as he announces to those at his birth that “his name is John.”
You lose your voice when you lose hope in God’s promises. You get it back when you believe. When John is born, Zechariah sings a song of praise at God’s unexpected gift.
The Communion Prayer for today’s Mass says: “As we give thanks, almighty God, for these gifts you have bestowed, graciously arouse in us, we pray, the desire for those yet to come.”
Never doubt the gifts God wants to give, Zechariah tells us. Doubt silences us. God’s gifts give us a voice.
O Root of Jesse’s stem,
sign of God’s love for all his people:
come to save us without delay!
28th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday (Year II)
“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1).
The curtains of the cosmic drama open with these words of Genesis, rolling out a lush garden of primordial integration when the whole of creation pulsated with divine light and energy. Ancient Hebrew cosmogony linked the ideas of cosmos and temple:
“The heavens are my throne, the earth, my footstool. What house can you build for me? Where is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1)
Before the Jerusalem Temple came to be, the Earth was the temple of God. Before the Hebrews came to be, Abel offered pleasing sacrifices to the Lord on the integrated altar-temple of his heart and the Earth, the dwelling place of God (Genesis 4:4).
Cain dissociated the altar from the temple, his heart from the Earth, and committed fratricide (Genesis 4:8).
Stabbed in the heart by Cain’s assault, the Earth opened her mouth and swallowed the body and blood of Abel, the first prophet (Genesis 4:10-11).
The Lord said: “Woe to you who build the memorials of the prophets whom your fathers killed. Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building. Therefore, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and Apostles; some of them they will kill and persecute’ in order that this generation might be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who died between the altar and the temple building. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be charged with their blood!” (Luke 11:47-51)
Instead of cleansing their hearts and acquiring the holy spirit of the prophets, the children of the murderers silenced the voice of God with whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27), a respectable cover-up for their own violence. Jesus saw right through the tomb builders and unmasked their hypocrisy.
We have an analogy in modern times: How well do we in America and around the world uphold the ideals of the heroes and heroines whom we honor? Do we pay homage to Abraham Lincoln but fail to examine our own hearts and that of our nation for racial bias? Do we laud Thomas Jefferson’s words that “all men are created equal,” but settle for institutional injustices?
The prophets deserve to be honored. Jesus never sanctioned the destruction of their memorials. However, he challenged the tomb builders to go beyond paying external homage to conforming their own hearts to the spirit of the honored.
From Abel to Zechariah, the voice of God was stamped out between the altar (thusiastérion) and the temple or “house” (oikos). The altar was “the meeting place between God and the true worshiper”—the human heart, ultimately, not just a manmade structure. “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13).
In the yawning gulf between the altar and the temple, the heart and the Earth, fratricide after fratricide darkened the soil of our original clay with bloodshed.
Christ, the high priest of his temple, would eventually be killed like all the prophets on the altar of the Cross in his kenotic obedience. Yet the Son of God is more than a prophet and a priest. His cosmic Body is the very temple of the Holy Spirit (John 2:20-21). Adoption by the Father through Christ, by baptism into his death, makes each person a temple of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6:4; 1 Corinthians 6:19).
The Earth could not hold the Body and Blood of Christ in a tomb as she did Abel to Zechariah. On the third day, the Son of God rose and renewed the whole universe, deifying her and pulling her into the love of the Trinity.
A change of heart was not forthcoming from Jesus’ antagonists, however. They were righteous in their own eyes, and honoring the tombs of the righteous confirmed their righteousness. Jesus joined the voices of the prophets and decried their hypocrisy, precipitating their schemes.
Woe to you, scholars of the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.” When Jesus left, the scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him and to interrogate him about many things, for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say (Luke 11:52-54).
What is Life in the Spirit?
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30
The theme of littleness runs through the readings this Sunday, from the humble prince of peace riding on an ass to the little ones to whom the Son wishes to reveal the Father. The little ones of the kingdom bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit—love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, many in the churches had not yet fully experienced this abundant grace in the Spirit; hence the need to point out its contrast with the fleshly life. After accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior, believers still struggled with pride and other vices. Elsewhere in St. Paul’s letters, contentions and factions also arose among the followers of the “meek” king. Why didn’t a simple assent to truth automatically translate into the transfigured, deified life?
An objective, detached assessment of the spiritual life must admit that baptism is not a magical rite that automatically divinizes a person. It plants a seed of grace that must be continually watered, nourished, pruned and guarded in order to allow it to grow and flourish. Grace is the seed of glory. Seeds can also die in dry and barren ground, and never bear fruit.
Brothers and sisters: You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Why would St. Paul use the conditional “if,” unless deification (transformation into Christ) was not automatic, but a process requiring watchfulness and attention?
For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
More “ifs” follow, plus the action verb “put to death,” with the Christian as the subject and the Spirit as our Paraclete. The baptized do not follow Christ by riding on his Cross, but by carrying it with him (a “yoke” is made for two) and crucifying the “old man” with its deeds. We have an Advocate to strengthen our spirit. The Greek Fathers used the word “synergy” to describe the process of deification—a mystical work of the human person and the Holy Spirit moving as one.
If the Christian life sounds burdensome, Jesus told us that the life of the little ones is restful:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
In the Little Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, she described the spiritual life as a ride in an “elevator” to heaven, which sounds contradictory to the Pauline battle. But the life of the Little Flower was full of tearful self-conquest. Her testimony of ease and trust in Jesus (her “elevator”) came from a deep resolve to follow him day after day as a little child.
“The Lord lifts up all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down” (Psalm 145:14).
Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Isaiah 49:1-6, Psalm 139, Acts 13:22-26, Luke 1:57-66, 80
Truly you have formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works. (Psalm 139:13-14)
King David sang with lyre and harp the mystery of his origins. Like a loving mother, God stitched him with needle and thread in his mother’s womb.
The prophet Isaiah received his name and mission “from my mother’s womb” to be “a light to the nations.”
John the Baptist was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb… to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:15, 79).
The greatest of the prophets—the “Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14)—Zechariah’s son was the first to be sanctified in the womb by the Holy Spirit, marking a turning point in salvation history. The Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation, inspired David’s psalms, and spoke through the prophets, anointed the Forerunner of the Son of God in Elizabeth’s womb.
At six months of age, before his body was fully formed, John’s spirit was whole and awake before reason or the senses knew the light of day. At the voice of Mary, John “leaped” in his mother’s womb “and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41).
Mary, full of grace and the Holy Spirit, was immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb in preparation for her role as the Mother of God.
The Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was neither sanctified in the womb nor immaculately conceived, but beyond conception itself, though language must grasp at the graspable to express his beginningless beginning. The only-begotten Son of the Father was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s immaculate womb, uniting in his Person divinity and humanity, heaven and earth.
The new Eve, the new Adam, and the new Elijah closed the Old Testament and opened the New. The Holy Spirit, who was known only vaguely in the Old Covenant took center stage in the Acts of the Apostles after Pentecost. From womb to womb down the centuries, the Spirit of truth has led us back to the Eternal Womb of the Father from whom all persons originate.
The spirit longs to soar beyond history to the eternal principle from which everything originates. Beyond the Story (history), beyond time and eternity, beyond the beyond…
Looking ahead realistically is always hard, but maybe it’s harder today, especially for a religious congregation like mine, whose membership is old and whose financial resources are stretched.
We mirror the church in this country, in fact, which is losing members and running short on finances. So, we have to plan for diminishment’
But God’s plan is not to fade away, but to grow; to live and not to die. The wonderful first reading from Zechariah for today’s Mass talks about growth, not decline. Keep a “measuring line” in your hand for what is new, it says. Don’t be afraid to think big.
Here’s the reading from Zechariah in full:
“I, Zechariah, raised my eyes and looked: there was a man with a measuring line in his hand. I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered, “To measure Jerusalem, to see how great is its width and how great its length.”
Then the angel who spoke with me advanced, and another angel came out to meet him and said to him, “Run, tell this to that young man: People will live in Jerusalem as though in open country, because of the multitude of men and beasts in her midst. But I will be for her an encircling wall of fire, says the LORD, and I will be the glory in her midst.”
Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! See, I am coming to dwell among you, says the LORD. Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day, and they shall be his people and he will dwell among you.”
We need God’s “measuring line” when we look ahead.