Birth of John the Baptist - Morning Mass, June 24, annually
This is from the second part of the oracles gathered under the name of the prophet Isaiah. It includes four poems about a mysterious suffering servant of the Lord. In this, the third, the servant reflects on his calling, purposes, doubts, consolations, and the scope of his mission.
Chapter 13 of Acts of the Apostles describes the mission of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, where they made explicit that God wanted both Jews and Gentiles to embrace Jesus. This is a fragment of Paul's fist speech in the synagogue of Antioch.
The early church had to deal with zealous followers of John the Baptist, who thought he was the Messiah. In telling of John's astonishing birth, Saint Luke honors John, but makes even his birth subordinate to that of Jesus.
Our Liturgical Situation: The Church so reveres John the Baptist, last of the prophets, that, when his feast occurs on a Sunday, the feast supersedes the Sunday's readings in the liturgy.
The Historical and Literary Background: In the middle section of the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapters 40-55, there are four short passages which scholars have called the Songs of the Suffering Servant. They're about a mysterious figure, who sometimes speaks in the first person, and whom God sometimes addresses. Sometimes the Servant is described as a prophet, sometimes as one whose suffering brings about a benefit for the people. In the original author's mind, the servant was probably a figure for the people of Israel, or for a faithful remnant within the people. Jesus saw aspects of his own life and mission foreshadowed in the Servant Songs. In Holy Week, meditating deeply on Jesus' suffering, the church proclaims the third Servant Song on Passion Sunday, Isaiah 50:4-7, and the fourth on Good Friday, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. The first is Isaiah 42:1-9.
Proclaiming It: Now read today's whole passage to yourself and distinguish the various speakers and audiences. The passage seems to be a mixture of
A Theological Choice of Emphasis: Historically and theologically, the most significant sentences are the first and the last. In the first, the servant orders people of islands and the remotest places to heed him. In the last, he quotes the Lord who expands his mission from the tribes of Jacob to the ends of the earth. Here's how these sentences mark a development in Israel's theology. For the most part, Israel concerned itself with keeping its own religious house in order. Thus Jacob [i.e., the descendants of the patriarch Jacob, a.k.a. Israel] is to be brought back to the Lord. But the last sentence calls on Jacob/Israel to reach beyond itself, becoming a light to the nations [Gentiles], that the Lord's salvation may reach outside Israel. You don't hear this theme often in the Hebrew Scriptures. And when prophets uttered it, it was seldom welcomed. Jesus' own openness to Gentiles put him fatally at odds with Israelite leaders of his day, as it did for Jesus' first followers. This sentence deserves a very vigorous proclamation.
The Historical Situation: This passage is from Acts of the Apostles, chapter 13, the mission of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch. The prepared lector would do well to read the whole chapter. Remember that the purpose of Saint Luke, author of Acts, is to explain to Gentile converts how a religious movement that started among Jews came to embrace them, and to give those newcomers an orientation to the tradition that they inherit. That history and the abrupt recent change (the switch to the Gentiles) are summed up in this short, exciting account of Paul's speeches in Antioch. On one Sabbath, Paul's speaks in the synagogue to "Fellow Israelites and you others who are God-fearing." The latter are Gentiles who were attracted to the Jewish way of life and teaching about God. Paul's address, which includes some details about John the Baptist, impresses his audience greatly. And so the next Sabbath, "almost the whole city" gathers around the synagogue to hear Paul again. This provokes jealousy among the local leaders of the Jews, who "with violent abuse contradicted what Paul had said." That leads Paul and Barnabas to declare, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, 'I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.'" And the rest, as they say, is history.
One more historical observation: The gospels are careful to point out John's status as subordinate precursor to Jesus. And Luke puts this theme on the lips of Paul in Acts 13. This reveals an ancient cult of John that rivaled the following of Jesus. This shouldn't surprise us. When the sandals were on the ground, events and movements were more complex than the summaries we have received from four evangelists. Part of their mission was to win over followers of the Baptizer, and another part was to keep the followers of Jesus from going the other way. We read them today, in part, because we don't want to stray any other way.
The Liturgical Situation and Your Proclamation: It would have been nice if the editors of the lectionary had extended this passage so that you could quote Paul and Barnabas quoting Isaiah 49:6, the end of today's first reading. (In a liturgically flexible and intellectually ambitious parish, you can just do that.) But it's the feast of John the Baptist. (Yet Lector's Notes will always prefer smart study of Scripture, and smart proclamation in our liturgy, over devotion to saints.) In today's passage, Paul marshals his facts and interpretations with irresistible logic. He's like a modern lawyer giving the jury his summation of an airtight case. Paul quotes the testimony of his last powerful witness, John the Baptist, and charges to his conclusion, the last sentence of today's passage.
That's how the lector should deliver this passage, too.
From a flickr.com post by a flickr pro named "Peter," or "petrus.agricola" [that's Peter.Farmer in Latin]. He gives this credit and provenance: Lorenzo e Jacopo Salimbeni - The Life of John the Baptist . Urbino, Marche, Italy, Oratorio of San Giovanni Battista.
Left: Birth of John the Baptist; Middle: The dumb Zechariah writes down the child's name "John"; Right: The Circumcision of the child John (the Baptist)
Original photo by courtesy of Richard & Claire Stracke from christianiconography.infoClick here for a larger graphic.
This page updated April 24, 2018