Chaplain's News

Nothing provides more excitement and joy than finding something new. Discoveries are made every day - new plants, medicines, heavenly bodies. In order to talk and marvel about these new discoveries, we give them names. One of our greatest common experiences is the birth of a child. When we hold a tiny baby in our arms, we are speechless and we wonder looking into the eyes of this child what this child will 'grow up' to be.

John the Baptist's own birth is likewise surrounded by mystery, calling for faith. His father Zechariah has been told that he and Elizabeth are to have a child. Zechariah expresses doubt. Elizabeth has always been barren and they are both advanced in years. The angel Gabriel responds that, because of his lack of faith in God's power, he will remain dumb (and deaf), unable to speak until 'the day these things occur' (1:20), that is, until the child is born and correctly named.

Zechariah's dumbness is not so much a punishment for lack of faith but a negative sign. His level of faith has been unable to cope with the extraordinary and surprising exercise of God's power that is being announced. Zechariah's faith had to grow.

But Zechariah finally has his better day: the episode told in the Gospel for today, Luke 1:57-66, 80. Elizabeth has duly given birth and all her neighbours and relations have shared her joy. However, when the day comes to circumcise and name the child she has a problem on her hands. In a very possessive way those same friends and neighbours insist that tradition and custom be observed and that the child be named after his father.

Bereft of her husband's active help, Elizabeth is hard put to withstand the force of this local village tyranny. God is fulfilling a promise but doing so in a way that challenges conventional categories and expectation. Surprise is always the mark of God's action in the Gospel of Luke.

The breakthrough comes when the use of a writing tablet enables Zechariah to make clear the divine instructions. It is not a question of what they might choose to call him: his name is by divine decree already 'John' - a name that means in Hebrew 'God has shown grace (or 'favour')'. The birth of this child marks the tangible, public beginning of the massive display of God's grace embodied in all the events to follow.

Many biblical scholars now think that, for a period of time, Jesus was most probably a disciple of John the Baptist. John may have helped Jesus discern his special calling and to recognise his destiny. Whatever of that, we know that Jesus made a break with John in many ways and called his own disciples.

Jesus does not wait for followers to come to him, he heads to the towns and villages where the people are and he speaks to them in ways they can understand. Jesus preaches to Israel first, but then to the Gentiles. Jesus rejects the harsh, ascetical life of the desert for spirituality of the everyday and, unlike John, Jesus does not just preach repentance for sins, but preaches conversion through forgiveness and compassion. As Louise Pambrun, editor, "Living with Christ", puts it, John's ministry was 'like the fast before the feast'.

Like John, however, Jesus never wavered from the price that must be paid for faith in our just and merciful God. So this feast flags that we have six months to Christmas, not for shopping or any of the other excessive elements that have hijacked that day, but to recommit ourselves to living out a spirituality that values the everyday and the ordinary, that knows the power of compassion and mercy and is ready to pay the price for living it.

Fr Gaetan Pereira
College Chaplain