This feast is one of the ‘solemnities’ of the year which are celebrated instead of Ordinary Time when they fall on a Sunday. John the Baptist is an important figure in all four Gospels, but the account of his birth is only in Luke. He came to ‘prepare the way’ for the preaching of Jesus, and stands as the great figure between the Old Covenant and the New one we have in Jesus.
This text, which the liturgy applies to John, was originally written by one of several prophets collected in the book we call Isaiah, probably one writing shortly after the first opportunity to return to Israel after the Babylonian Captivity. This period began hopefully, but returning the land and rebuilding the religious institutions was a slow and sometimes discouraging process, which may be behind this reading. It was a time when a prophet could also feel discouraged, for they remembered the words of joy and excitement over the coming return. This text suggests that has happened, and the prophet may be questioning what his role is now.
What comes first in this reading is like a new commissioning from the Lord, which the ‘Servant’ realizes was meant for him from even before his birth – as John’s role of a prophet was foretold to his father before he was conceived. The ‘islands’ or ‘coastlands’ were thought of by the Jews as the farthest points west, so the message is to extend beyond Israel. The comparison of the mouth to a sword is an indication of a powerful speech. The idea behind the concealed arrow is not so clear, but the guiding role of God is emphasized.
‘You are my servant (Israel)’ – translators use the parentheses because they consider that the word ‘Israel’ is a later addition that slipped into the text, perhaps borrowed from another ‘Servant Song’, 44:21. Identifying the Servant of this song as ‘Israel’ does not fit with the commissioning in verse 6 to speak to Israel.
The servant confesses his discouragement that his work had come to nothing, but now realizes God was with him, and will reward him. This reflects with the time when John the Baptist was imprisonment by Herod, and may have been discouraged about his own mission, for he sent disciples to Jesus asking if he was the one to come, or should they wait for another. (Matthew 11:2ff, Luke 7:18ff).
Next follows the extension of his prophetic call. Not only will he continue to preach to Israel but will become the light of the ‘nations’ – or ‘Gentiles’ – the Hebrew word differently translated was used for non-Jews. John the Baptist seemed to direct his preaching only to the people around him, but since he prepared the way for Jesus ‘the light of the world’, we can think of him having a part in that further ministry beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land.
Psalm 138/139:1-3, 13-15
The psalm picks up the theme of being chosen before birth. The psalmist meditates on God as all-knowing and all-providing, and is a poetic reflection for anyone, not just a prophet.
Luke is telling the story of Paul’s first preaching in Antioch. It became Paul’s practice in his missionary travels, to start preaching to the Jews, and only afterwards, especially if they rejected his message, would he specifically go to the Gentiles. In this selection, he mentions the Jews first, but includes any who ‘fear God’, a phrase often used for those who accepted the teachings of the Jews, but had not fully joined in by circumcision. In the full speech Paul summarizes the history of Israel, but our selection steps in with the choice of King David, leading into Jesus as Messiah of David’s line. What fits today’s liturgy are the words of John when he distinguishes his ministry from Jesus, ‘the one coming after me’. John’s humility in comparison with Jesus is a hint of Jesus’ divinity.
Luke 1:57, 66, 80
The Gospel selection is a short part of Luke’s longer telling of the background of John the Baptist, and it makes more sense if you read the full account in chapter 1, where the evangelists interweaves the stories of the annunciation and birth of John and Jesus. In short summary, Zechariah, one of the priests taking turns to serve in the Temple, is offering incense in the inner sanctuary when he receives a vision of an angel who tells him his wife, despite her old age beyond childbearing years, will bear a son who will become a great prophet ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’. Zechariah does not believe this miracle could happen and for that he is made mute, unable to speak.
Our reading picks up the moment this changes. First he confirms in writing the name of the child, which had been given by the angel when telling Zechariah of the birth (verse 13). When Zechariah suddenly speaks again, ‘praising God’, those around are awestruck and expectant. Luke has a style of closing off a scene before he moves on, and he anticipates the later life of John the Baptist, to the point where we will hear of his preaching (in chapter 3 of Luke. In Mark it is the opening of his Gospel.)
The liturgy here omits verses 68-79, where Luke has the prophecy of Zechariah in a poem – ‘The Benedictus’ – that is said or sung every morning in the church’s official prayer (the Divine Office or Breviary). Read it for the prophetic role John the Baptist will play in preparing the way for Jesus and also for its hope in all times, including today when the state of our world needs a ‘guide to the way to peace’.