Birth of the Herald

In today’s gospel we encounter the arrival of the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth into the world – the one who we know as John the Baptist. The account of John’s birth follows the pattern: birth + response + circumcision + naming + response. Represented in the structure and content of this sketch are the fulfillment of Gabriel’s words and Zechariah’s obedience to the angel. But it is the last verse that is the center of the story: “What then will this child become?” All the other verses lead up to and raise this question. Tomorrow’s gospel begins the process of answering it, locating John in the story of God’s redemption via Zechariah’s canticle, the Benedictus.

Luke’s initial characterization of Zechariah and Elizabeth concerned their righteousness. After Zechariah’s brief expression of unbelief (Luke 1:18–20), they return to their adherence to faithfulness. They follow the covenant directions regarding circumcision as well as the command of Gabriel regarding the naming of their child. Submission to God of this sort may be par for the course for them (1:5–6), but this is different. Repeatedly, this scene is cloaked in the light of the miraculous—recognized already in the Lord’s expression of mercy to Elizabeth (1:58), now evident in the processes by which the child is named (1:59–63) and Zechariah regains his voice (1:64). The people’s reactions, amazement and fear (1:63, 65), are characteristic responses to the miraculous in Luke-Acts. These events also lead to the central question, “What then will this child become?” To which the narrator notes: “For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.” What will he become was prophesized in the first reading by Malachi “Thus says the Lord GOD: Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” (Mal 3:1)

All this underscores the sense that God is at work behind and in these seemingly ordinary practices—the circumcision and naming of a Jewish baby—and suggests to us that we should join the people of in pondering the future role of this baby.

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