REFLECTIONS ON THE SUNDAY READINGS FOR
THE BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST, 24th JUNE 2018
Isaiah 49:1-6; Psalm 138:1-3,13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66,80
“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came to bear witness to the light, to prepare an upright people for the Lord.” This is the entrance antiphon for today, based on the first chapter of John’s Gospel. It encapsulates the call and destiny of John the Baptist, whose birth we honour and its message is reflected in all our readings.
It is not certain whether the subject of the reading from Isaiah, understood as the second of the Servant Songs, is either the Servant or Israel. The first two verses lend support that an individual is being spoken about: the claim that the call of God went back to the time before birth is strongly reminiscent of accounts of a prophetic call, an impression strengthened by the reference to “my mouth”, for the prophet was essentially a speaker. Here, the Servant has a mission to Israel: the author of this poem saw it as part of the servant’s role to restore all Israel to the true service of God and what God has achieved through him will be seen as a light by distant nations, even to what is poetically described as “the ends of the earth”.
In Luke, we hear of John’s circumcision, the sign of his entry into the covenant. The canticle of John’s father, Zechariah, is sadly omitted from our reading today, but in it we hear him speak of his son in prophetical terms: “And you, little child,/you shall be called Prophet of the Most High/,for you will go before the Lord/to prepare the way for him./To give his people knowledge of salvation” (Lk1:76/77), which is reminiscent of the passage from Isaiah. So, too, is the angel’s announcement to Zechariah of the birth of John: “Even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Lk 1:15/16).
This is the repentance referred to in our reading from Luke’s companion volume, Acts. Here, we listen to part of Paul’s synagogue sermon in Antioch, which marks a new step in the progress of the gospel in that it is consciously addressed to a diaspora audience, containing both ethnic Jews and “others who fear God”. He gives a potted resumé of Israel’s history to show that the whole movement of biblical history points forward to the Christ event. He places the mission of John the Baptist as the climax of this history, the final tip of an arrow pointing in one clear direction.
John’s call by God, specific and personal to him, echoes the certainty of God’s call to every individual as expressed in Psalm 138: “every one of my days was decreed/before one of them came into being”. God’s knowledge and protection of each one is sure, enwrapping and protecting him/her from conception throughout life: “For it was you who created my being,/knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
Standing at such a pivotal place between the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, John the Baptist has a special role in my Congregation, the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion. He is the patron saint of our noviciate in Jerusalem, so I ask your prayers today for all our novices from many different countries. Thank you!
This week’s Sunday Readings Commentary was prepared by
Sr Margaret Shepherd, NDS, London, UK
[Copyright © 2018]
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