A feast day of great possibility

The Nativity of John the Baptist
Luke 1:57-80

If you’re not entirely familiar with the rhythm of the church calendar, you might be a bit surprised to find that tonight we’re stepping out of the regular cycle of readings and marking the Nativity of John the Baptist. The very word “nativity” evokes Christmas, and our gospel reading was taken from the 1st chapter of the Gospel according to Luke; the same chapter in which Luke writes about the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary. Add to that the lesson we heard from the prophet Isaiah with all of its language about the coming and the fulfillment and the completion, and it might begin to feel that we’re about six months off in our timing here.

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But that is actually the point of June 24 being marked as the nativity of John. In Luke’s telling, it was “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that Gabriel visits Mary to announce to her that she will soon be pregnant with the child Jesus. Six months between John and Jesus, in other words, and since the 4th century the church calendar has marked John’s birth on this day. Exactly six months from tonight we’ll be back in this space, celebrating the birth of Jesus.

And in the same way that Christmas was observed at the time of an existing pre-Christian feast—that of the winter solstice—the nativity of John was layered on top of the summer solstice, or Midsummer’s Day. Hard to think of today as being “midsummer” in this part of the world, given that we’ve barely had much summer at all, but in the agrarian European context in which this calendar was developed they would have been acutely aware of the solstice. The crops would have all been planted and most of the hardest seasonal work done… a good time to break the day-to-day grind and have a feast.

Well, as we know from our own society’s observances of Christmas, sometimes the deeper meaning of a feast day can get lost in the midst of the party; something which rather troubled the more earnest Reformation-era church leaders. In some places this feast day was actively suppressed, though even today it continues to be a party day in some places… with poor old John the Baptist often forgotten in all but name.

Do you remember the background story to John’s birth? His parents Elizabeth and Zechariah are described as “righteous before God,” yet they are childless “because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” Luke is takes care to make sure the reader knows that Elizabeth’s barrenness was without any moral or spiritual cause, emphasizing that this couple lived “blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” When the angel comes to Zechariah with news that Elizabeth will have a child, and that “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit,” Zechariah is doubtful. “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Well those questioning words are the very last ones old Zechariah speaks until after his son is born, which is where today’s reading picks up. When it came time to name the new baby, everyone simply assumed he would be given his father’s name. “No,” Elizabeth said, “No, he is to be named John.” John? Why name him John, when no one in the family line has carried that name? Unprepared to trust a woman with so weighty a decision as the naming of a child, they motion to the still-mute Zechariah to get his opinion. Taking a writing tablet, Zechariah writes his concurrence with Elizabeth (and with Gabriel, who had first told him the name…): “His name is John.” “Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.”

As we continued to read a bit further in Luke’s narrative, we came to a piece of poetic text known as the Benedictus or “song of Zechariah,” in which Luke pictures words flowing off of the old man’s newly loosed tongue. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” the text begins, “for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. / He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David.” Notice that it is all spoken in the present tense. John is only eight days old, and Mary won’t give birth for another six months, yet the people are “redeemed” and God “has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David.” It is as good as accomplished, though one would never guess that by looking at a newborn baby and at the beginning hints of a swelling in Mary’s belly.

And then as Zechariah continues, he looks at his infant child and says to him, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.” Can’t you picture the old man holding this tiny baby, and looking deeply into his eyes as he says those words? “And you, my child…”

 [Y]ou will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of           death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

To be sure, a tall order for a newborn baby; yet in the scriptures babies and children are often given tall orders and commissioned with world-changing roles. And in a world in which barrenness itself was experienced as a kind of death, unexpected babies of promise are born; to Abraham and Sarah, to Isaac and Rebekah, to Jacob and Rachel, to Hannah and Elkanah, and finally here to Elizabeth and Zechariah. Unexpected babies born to childless couples are a sign that the Spirit is on the move.

It is this that is sung in the words of the traditional English “Midsummer Carol,”

Good Christians awake, for ‘tis midsummer’s morn
the child of the new world at last has been born
the child of the roses we greet with a song
For whom Zechariah had waited so long
Good Christians be joyful, put sorrow away
For the herald of Jesus was born on this day

“The child of the new world” the writer calls John; the one whose birth marks the dawning of a new covenant, through which the old world is recreated.

For we shall sing songs in the winter one day
When the scent of the roses has changed to the hay
When we in the stable will kneel and adore
who expected the child through the long months before
Good Christians be joyful, put sorrow away
For the herald of Jesus was born on this day

And just as John the Baptist points to Jesus, so this carol sung at midsummer points toward the great midwinter feast of the Incarnation.

So let us be joyful and fervent in prayer
and gifts for our God and our neighbour prepare
For here is the Baptist to teach us to say
that Christmas is coming on midsummer day
Good Christians be joyful, put sorrow away
For the herald of Jesus was born on this day

This is a feast day of great possibility; of new beginnings and of renewed hope. It is a day on which to dare to believe that, as Paul writes, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” One baby is born, and another is on the way, and yet already Zechariah sings of redemption as an accomplished fact.

And it is.


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