What does it mean for the Christian community to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist as one of the twelve date-linked solemnities in our liturgical calendar? Though the Church rightly calls him “saint,” John was not a Christian. He was not around for Easter and Pentecost, the events that made it possible to be baptized into the body of Christ. His own water ritual was a baptism for repentance, a prophetic symbolic action facilitating his call for recommitment among his fellow Israelites. How then are we to celebrate him as part of our Sunday Eucharist? As always, the readings chosen for the feast are our best help for focusing our prayer and worship.
The writers of the New Testament, Luke especially, saw this promise fulfilled especially in Jesus and the Church. But the passage is fittingly read to celebrate the Baptist, because he was a special agent in that first stage, the restoration of Israel. That was the purpose of John's revival campaign, calling Israel to renewed
The Second Reading, from Peter's speech to the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, speaks of the Baptist heralding Jesus' coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance “to all the people of Israel.” This is mentioned as an essential part of the way that “God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.” Part of John's preparation for Jesus’ Servant ministry was the training of some of the men who were to become Jesus' first disciples.
Finally, the Gospel furthers our appreciation of John's role in the history of salvation. The extended family of Elizabeth and Zechariah are gathered from what is, after all, a celebration of the Abrahamic covenant, which looked forward to Israel's becoming a “blessing for the nations” (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Even the word used by Jews today for circumcision—brit (from berith, “covenant”)—reminds us that this rite is about entering the covenant community. That makes the ritual a renewal of something old and enduring.
That there is also something profoundly new about to occur in the life and mission of John is signaled by the fact that this new life springs from a woman who had been sterile. The promise of that new life had so stretched the faith of Zechariah that he had at first doubted it could happen. That incomplete response expressed itself physically in the loss of his speech (and apparently hearing) until his obedient insistence that the child be named John restored his speech.
Space requires that our Lectionary omits the canticle that issues from that freed tongue (the Benedictus), but our celebration of John should include some meditation on those words. For they describe his role powerfully:
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the daybreak from on high will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death's shadow,
to guide our feet into the path of peace" (1:76-79).
We celebrate John the Baptist with solemnity because his faithful work as prophet of the covenant was so central to the way God chose to bring salvation to us in Jesus. His role as prophet of Israel helps us understand that the new covenant in Jesus was a renewal, not a replacement, of God's brit with Israel. We Gentile Christians are the beneficiaries of John's fidelity to that covenant.