Time is really slipping away. It’s only six months until Christmas. Go ahead. Gasp. But for a preview of coming attractions, and a glance ahead to Christmas, look no further than the feast we celebrate today, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Even now, in the blazing light of June, just past the summer solstice, when the days are longest… our attention is being drawn to a distant star of winter. Because today, we meet another miraculous infant: the one who will grow up to prepare the way of the Lord.
This is a phenomenal feast – and a rare one. Only three times during the year does the church celebrate a birthday: for Jesus, for his mother… and for John the Baptist. The Baptist is in illustrious company, and this serves to remind us just how important he is to our salvation history. When you consider the circumstances surrounding it, the Nativity of John the Baptist is almost as full of wonder as the Nativity of Jesus. Like Jesus’ birth, there is great mystery. There was an angel who announced it, and parents who hadn’t planned on it, and a name for the baby that was chosen by God.
In one of the more remarkable moments of this gospel, Elizabeth defied family tradition with one succinct phrase: “He will be called John.” She was able to make that leap of faith and give this child the name for which he was destined. John is an ancient Hebrew name rich with meaning – for Zechariah and Elizabeth. And for us. As the gospel indicates, the name is not an accident. It was pronounced by the angel Gabriel – and its meaning serves to send a message to the world. Some translations have it as “Gift of God” or “Grace by God.” But in one interpretation that I like, the name means “God is gracious.”
In giving an aging, childless couple a new life… God is gracious. In making what seemed impossible possible… God is gracious. In working miracles where we least expect… God is gracious. God is gracious in offering us that most precious and elusive commodity: hope. And so it was that before this child has uttered a word – John, just with his name, announced the hope that would come with the Christ. God is gracious. How desperately we need to hear that now. The news can be numbing, and dispiriting. When tearful children are pried from the arms of distraught parents, in a time of political mudslinging, of war and volatility around the globe, it can be tempting to forget that simple, undeniable and enduring truth: despite our hardships and misgivings, our problems and setbacks… God is gracious. And God’s grace is what sustains us.
Consider that. Consider what that has meant for us in our founding of Christ Our Hope Church, and how the forerunner of the Messiah was also the forerunner of all that we do here now in liturgy and outreach. And he prepared the way for all that would follow – including Word and Eucharist that we celebrate today. Beyond being a prophet, and a martyr, and a saint, John the Baptist was one of God’s gifts to a needy and searching world. A cause for optimism and a reason for hope. And it comes to us as a blessed reminder of what God can do. Elizabeth, the Baptist’s mother, put it so clearly and so perfectly, as mothers often do. “He will be called John.” Because God is gracious.
Paul A. Magnano