The Church offers us two sets of readings for this feast – one for the vigil, and one for the day itself. I have decided this year to use those prescribed for the vigil simply because they are less familiar to us than the others. In particular you will notice that the gospel stops short of Zechariah’s incredulity and his being struck dumb.
What St Luke does is situate the story at a particular point in history. King Herod is a well-known figure, so the evangelist is telling us that the events he is about to relate really did occur at a precise time. They concern a couple who – if Luke had not written about them – would have been completely forgotten. Both were elderly, and both were worthy in the sight of God, and scrupulously observed all the commandments and observances of the Lord. Good people, then … but they had no children. In ancient Jewish society this was considered a great misfortune, and the two of them – Zechariah and Elizabeth – were to be pitied.
Zechariah was a priest. It seems that his home was not in Jerusalem, but this story concerns a period when his group – his team, if you like – was on duty in the Temple. People did not wander in and out of the Temple sanctuary. Only the priest on duty might enter. Twice a day he would do so and put more incense on the burner so that a sweet smelling smoke rose before the Lord. That smoke represented the prayers of the people. Many of those who had offered sacrifices during the day would be there at this time late in the afternoon. They’d have seen Zechariah go into the sanctuary, and they waited and waited for him to emerge. The fact that he was in the sanctuary for so long would have made them realise that something was happening.
St Luke tells us what it was: an angel, whom we learn later was Gabriel, appeared to him and told him that your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you must name him John. When one of God’s messengers announces the name of a child it’s not because it seems a nice name. The name has a meaning. In this case, the name ‘John’ in Hebrew means ‘The-Lord-is-gracious’. The angel is making it clear to Zechariah that he and his wife are to have a child at last because God has expressly willed it.
Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son will never drink wine or any other strong drink, that even from his mother’s womb, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit and he will bring back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. Then he makes a surprising reference; he says: With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children … preparing for the Lord a people fit for him. You might well wonder what this is all about. Well it is a quotation from the prophet Malachi, perhaps the last book of the Old Testament to be written. Malachi records this promise of the Lord: Know that I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before my day [i.e. Judgement Day] comes, that great and terrible day. He shall turn the hearts of fathers towards their children and the hearts of children towards their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse. Remember that Elijah was last seen (in the Second Book of Kings) going towards Heaven in a chariot of fire. Jewish scholars expected him to return to earth towards the end of time to prepare the world for judgement.
For the record let me mention that the Jansenists, members of a heretical movement prominent especially in the French Church in the 17th and 18th centuries were convinced that the world was going to the dogs; it was in such a bad state that the end time must be nigh; so they were looking out for the return of Elijah. During my research in France last year I was surprised to learn that there were a few people around in France at the end of the 19th century who held the same views. I was still more surprised a few days later to learn that to this very day there are a few people left who are still expecting Elijah to return. I have yet to learn how they reconcile their expectation with Jesus’ own words in St Matthew’s gospel. You will remember that, after the Transfiguration, the disciples asked Jesus: Why do the scribes say, then, that Elijah has to come first? Jesus replied: True, Elijah is to come to see that everything is once more as it should be; however, I tell you that Elijah has already come and they did not recognise him but treated him as they pleased … The disciples understood that he had been speaking of John the Baptist.
So this gospel passage is making it clear from the outset that the child to be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a special mission from God. He will have a preaching mission; he is to be a prophet. The task of a prophet is to speak God’s word to his people. It is not necessarily a matter of conveying new information; it is often a message recalling the terms of the alliance and warning of the consequences of non-compliance. To help us understand this role, the Church has given us as our first reading today Jeremiah’s account of his own vocation. He says God told him: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I have appointed you as prophet to the nations. Jeremiah gulped and felt very uneasy: Ah, Lord: look, I do not know how to speak. I am a child. God wasn’t having any of that and replied: Do not say “I am a child”. Go now to those to whom I send you and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them for I am with you to protect you – it is the Lord who speaks. And that was that. The words of a prophet are not always welcomed by those to whom they are addressed. This was certainly true in Jeremiah’s case; he suffered a lot for speaking God’s word to the leaders of Israel. And of course John the Baptist was to lose his head for being faithful to his mission. Need I add that none of us can expect to have an untroubled path through life? All of us will experience a measure of suffering which may not be in opposition to our faith, but which may well put our faith in God’s love to the test.
The other reading we have heard today was taken from the first letter of St Peter. In it he gives a very positive account of the role of the prophets in general, and indeed the role of so much of the Old Testament, in forming our Christian faith. Most of those writings point in some way towards the coming of a Saviour and his work for our redemption. He writes: You did not see Jesus Christ, yet you love him; and still without seeing him, you are already filled with a joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because you believe; and you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls.
In this Year of Grace it will be appropriate for us to reflect on the role of the many prophets God sent into the world to prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets and – we might add – the first of the New. Thank the Lord for him. [Q.Howard]