A New Creation in John the Baptist
In the Gospel of Saint Luke, we read that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and a priest of the Temple, was a righteous man in the eyes of God. Yet even good people can sometimes get caught up in the ways of the world, thinking as men think, not as God thinks (cf. Matthew 16:21-23).
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had been unable to have a child and they were at an advanced age where they had given up hope of having one. Then one day, when Zechariah was offering incense in the Temple sanctuary, the angel Gabriel was sent to announce to him this good news – they would have a son and “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:15-17).
When Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she, a virgin, would be the mother of the Lord, she had complete faith in God. In asking the angel to explain, she merely sought to understand how God’s will might be done in and through her, the handmaid of the Lord (Luke 1:34). Thus, Elizabeth would subsequently say to her, “Blessed are you who believed” (Luke 1:45).
Zechariah, on the other hand, thinking of Elizabeth’s history of infertility and their old age, essentially doubted God and his plan. Consequently, the angel told him, “Now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words” (Luke 1:20).
The result of Zechariah’s disbelief was an impaired ability to communicate and relate to others. His tongue would not be loosed until after Elizabeth gave birth to their son and he gave witness of his restored faith, confirming in writing her insistence that the boy be named “John.” Having brought new life to that which was barren, now God brought a new voice to that which had been silent, just as John would come to be a voice crying out in the wilderness (John 1:23).
Filled with the Holy Spirit, the new father joyously gave thanks with a hymn of praise that the Church has long recited each morning in the Liturgy of the Hours, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.” Then Zechariah said prophetically, “And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:68, 76-79).
John the Baptist is a bridge of continuity between the Old Testament and the New. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, he completes the cycle of prophets begun by Elijah – with the fire of the Spirit dwelling in him, he is “the forerunner of the coming Lord. In John, the precursor, the Holy Spirit completes the work of ‘[making] ready a people prepared for the Lord’” (CCC 718-19). With John, the Spirit “begins the restoration to man of ‘the divine likeness,’ prefiguring what he would achieve with and in Christ” (CCC 720), with whom there is a new beginning, a new and everlasting covenant.
As we celebrate today the birth of John – son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, prophet, precursor and baptizer – we celebrate and give thanks to the Lord who makes within us a new creation. He brings us new life and with his love, we will bear abundant fruit.