In the midst of all the wonder and excitement of the birth of a child, it is a natural question to ask: “What will this child be?” Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor? Loving, kind, gentle, brave? …. And the categories and lists are endless. At the beginning all things are possible.
Given the backstory of the parents of John the Baptist, “what will this child be” is a natural question. Elizabeth thought too old to have a child. Zechariah who was struck mute while serving in the Jerusalem Temple. A tradition that says the first born son will carry the father’s name. Strange and unexpected portents. Indeed, what will this child be?
Our first readings have increasingly acted 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. 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 child who lept in the womb when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, arrived. The child who was full of surprises from the beginning. 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.” 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.
Behold the messenger has come. John’s role is fulfilled. The Messiah this way comes. In the light of that coming, the great cloud of witness continues to ask about us: what, then, will this child be?
Image credit: Birth of St. John the Baptist, Artemisia Gentileschi, Prado Museum Madrid, Public Domain