Our readings for today increasingly act as heralds for the coming of the Messiah as well as pointing to the one who would herald the coming of Jesus. The first reading from the prophet Malachi (whose name means “my messenger”) proclaims that God’s promises are true, but are fulfilled in God’s time, not ours. The reading announces: “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Mal 3:1) and he identifies that messenger: “Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet” (Mal 3:23) This oracle is several hundred years after the time of Elijah. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah is turning over the mantle of the prophetic office to Elisha but in that scene Elijah departs by boarding a fiery chariot and ascends into heaven. But the tradition in Judaism was that Elijah would return and so several traditions and rituals leave a chair empty and ready for Elijah.
Elijah is the representative of the entire prophetic tradition of the Old Covenant – and as such Elijah appears in the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36) testifying that the prophecies were fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Jesus makes clear that the mission of Elijah, to be the immediate herald of the Messiah is fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist: “This is the one about whom scripture says: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, he will prepare your way before you.’” (Luke 7:27)
The gospel describes in a simple narrative the birth of John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. There is a more complete description of the full narrative below, but the circumstances of John’s birth to parents of advanced age and the naming the child John, all lead the people to ask “What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” (Luke 1:66)
What will this child be? The herald of the Messiah, fulfilling Elijah’s role.
The backstory: Zechariah and Elizabeth
Zechariah was a priest from the tribe of Levi who served the Lord during the reign of Herod in Judea. Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, was also a descendant of Aaron, and the Bible says they were godly, devout people (Luke 1:5–6). When the Bible begins their story, they are both old and childless, although they had prayed for children.
Luke 1:8–9 records that it was Zechariah’s turn to enter the temple and burn incense as part of his priestly duties. This was likely a once-in-a-lifetime honor. While Zechariah was in the holy place, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Gabriel told Zechariah that his prayers had been answered. God had chosen him and Elizabeth to bear a son who would be the forerunner of the promised Messiah. They were to name him John, and he would be filled with the Holy Spirit and dedicated to the Lord’s service even before birth.
But Zechariah doubted the angel’s words, reminding Gabriel that he was advanced in age, as was his wife. Because of his questioning that God could possibly work out the biology, Zechariah was struck mute until the time when his son would be born. When Zechariah exited the temple, he stood before the crowd unable to speak. From his gestures, the people understood that he had seen a vision while in the temple.
Zechariah returned home, and Elizabeth became pregnant, just as the angel had said. When she was in her sixth month, the angel Gabriel also appeared to Mary, her relative, and told Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Jesus. Mary went right away to spend time with Elizabeth, where she received further confirmation of the angel’s words: at the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she marveled at the work of God in both their lives
When Elizabeth gave birth to her son, the friends and relatives assumed he would be named after his father, Zechariah. But Zechariah made motions asking for writing tools, and when he received them he wrote that he would name his son “John” – very much against the tradition that the first born son would carry his father’s name. Immediately, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he praised God for His redemption, for His faithfulness to His promises, and for His salvation. Zechariah then prophesied that his son John would become a prophet to prepare a way for the Lord.