Nativity of John the Baptist
Every year I see an article about the most popular girls’ and boys’ names for newborns that year. It is interesting to see how these names have changed over the years. So, if you look at the 1930s, among the most popular girls’ names were Mary, Betty, Dorothy, Barbara, and Shirley. Jump up to the 1970s, and the most popular names included Jennifer, Amy, Melissa, Heather, and Angela. Last year, the five most popular girls’ names were Emma, Olivia, Ava, Isabella, and Sophia.
For boys in the 1930s, the most popular names were Robert, James, John, William, and Richard. Those names and their order of popularity did not change for years. But by the 1970s among the most popular names were Michael, Jason, Christopher, David, and James. Last year, the five most popular were Liam, Noah, William, James, and Logan.
Parents of course are the ones who name their children. And giving a name to a child in a sense gives them an identity. Most likely, that’s the name that person will be called throughout his or her life. In Scripture, God names someone or changes a person’s name on various occasions, and He does so in order to give that person an identity, or a new identity. And these names had specific meanings which had to do with this identity.
So, today we celebrate the Nativity or the birth of John the Baptist. And as we heard in our Gospel reading, the Lord himself, through an angel, named him – He told Zechariah that his son’s name would be John – Ioannes – a name meaning “the Lord has shown favor”. Zechariah was a Jewish priest; and priests in Judaism belonged to 24 different divisions who would take turns serving in the temple in Jerusalem for two different weeks out of the year. However, it was very rare to be chosen to go into the sanctuary of the temple – a part of the temple no one else could enter or even see – to burn incense as an offering to the Lord. Normally this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and so it was considered a great honor and the pinnacle of one’s priestly service. And as we heard, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who were both righteous before the Lord, had never been able to have children. This was often interpreted by the Jews as a sign of God’s disfavor. No doubt this was confusing to them and to others because of their righteousness.
But when Zechariah goes into the sanctuary of the temple, probably for the first and only time in his life, an angel of the Lord appears to him and tells him that Elizabeth, despite being “advanced in years” would bear a son, whose name would be John – the Lord was showing them his favor after all these years. This was a miraculous event; Scripture makes clear that Elizabeth was long past her child-bearing years. But she and her husband had a part to play in the Lord’s plan of salvation for humanity, and that was to bring John the Baptist into the world.
And John himself likewise had a key role in this plan of salvation. As the angel tells Zechariah, John would go before the Lord to prepare a people fit for the Lord. God gave John the Baptist even before his birth the mission of preparing the way for Jesus. To prepare John for his mission, he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even while in his mother’s womb.
There is a parallel here between John the Baptist and the prophet Jeremiah of our first reading. The Lord tells Jeremiah that even before he was conceived, the Lord had a plan for him. He appointed him to be a prophet “to the nations” – to proclaim whatever message the Lord gave him. The Lord told him not to be afraid to proclaim this message to others, not to worry that he was too young, that he would not know what to say. John the Baptist becomes the new Jeremiah. He was to serve as the “precursor” to the Lord, the one who would go before Jesus, calling people to repentance even as Jesus was living in obscurity in Nazareth.
Each one of us has a role or a mission like that of John the Baptist. We are all in some way called to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Jesus has already come into the world – John prepared for his first coming. And now we must prepare for Jesus’ second coming. For Jesus will come again: to each one of us at the moment of our death when we enter into eternal life, and then at the end of time when He will return to this world to claim victory once and for all over sin and death.
How do we prepare the way of the Lord? How do we prepare a people fit for the Lord? First, we must start with ourselves. Prepare the way of the Lord first in your own heart. If you do not do that, you won’t be able to do it anywhere else. Do not neglect your spiritual life. Mass on Sunday is one part of this – and a very important part – not just some Sundays when it’s convenient and fits into our schedule, but every Sunday. But we also have to prepare our hearts the rest of the week too. That’s where daily prayer and things like studying Scripture, spiritual reading, and works of mercy and charity come in. They should be a part of our everyday life.
If we are cultivating our own spiritual life, preparing the way of the Lord in our own hearts, then the Lord will give us the grace and the blessed responsibility of preparing a people fit for the Lord. But don’t think you have to be perfect before you can do this. If you think that, you’ll be waiting your whole life to start. Don’t say to yourself: “Well, I’m not perfect, or I’m not good enough, or I’m not worthy.’’ Those are just excuses! As long as you yourself are on the path, you can and must fulfill the mission the Lord has given you.
What does that mean and how do we do it? We do this by bringing others to the Lord, and by helping people who themselves are on the path. And everyone who is on that path is in some way struggling, because it’s not always easy. So, parents: you have a responsibility to raise your children in the faith. Make sure they receive the sacraments. Educate them in the faith. Create a happy, stable, and faith-centered home life. Husbands and wives: seek to bring out the best in each other. Help your spouse to become the best version of himself or herself. Everyone: first you can do this through the example of your own life, by loving God and one another, by following the Lord’s commandments. And you can also do it even by inviting people to come to church or to a Bible study or to a prayer group. And above all, pray! Prayer is the best and most effective thing we can do, both for ourselves and for others. And it’s something that everyone can do, regardless of one’s state in life.
As with St. John the Baptist, the Lord has had this mission in mind for all of us even before we were conceived. He has called us even before our birth. He calls us by name, and He gives us our true identity as his sons and daughters.