For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist is so important a feast that there are two full sets of Scripture readings for Holy Mass. One set is proclaimed at Vigil Masses on the evening before the feast day, unless June 24th is a Monday, in which case the Vigil is impeded by the celebration of Sunday Mass. The second set of Scripture readings is proclaimed on the feast day itself. Yet regardless of whether you attend Mass on the evening before or the day of June 24th, the Gospel passage that you hear will be taken from the first chapter of St. Luke’s account of the Gospel.
The Vigil’s Gospel passage comes from the beginning of Luke 1. The Gospel passage for the feast day itself comes from the end of the chapter. These two passages bookend the story of St. John’s birth. As with the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth, the child to be born is the focus, but not the central actor. In the Gospel passages for today’s feast, the central actor is John’s father, Zechariah. St. Luke the Evangelist here contrasts Zechariah with the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Zechariah was an elderly husband, yet without children. Mary was a young betrothed virgin. Saint Gabriel appears to each of them separately, and tells each not to be afraid. The archangel announces to each that a son is to be born. Yet their responses differ profoundly.
The man persists in unbelief, while the woman believes. Mary’s final word in response to St. Gabriel’s announcement is “Fiat”: “Let it be done unto me according to your word” [Luke 1:38]. In response to Zechariah’s unbelief, St. Gabriel declares in a verse not long after the end of the Gospel passage for the Vigil Mass: “behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass” [Lk 1:20]. That “day” is narrated in the Gospel passage for Sunday.
Saint Augustine in Sunday’s Office of Readings explains that “the silence of Zechariah is nothing but the age of prophecy lying hidden, obscured, as it were, and concealed before the preaching of Christ.” Later in the same sermon, St. Augustine expounds the distinction between Jesus and His cousin: “The voice is John, but the Lord ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word in the beginning, is eternal.”
But if the voice must decrease, so that the Word may increase, what can be said of Zechariah? He is not even a voice, but silence: the silence in which the Voice is conceived, and a silence which you as a sinner must enter.
The silence illustrated by Zechariah is born of unbelief. Every sinner is called into this silence. Most of our fallen world is a modern Babel. We are unfaithful to God’s Word, because we cannot hear it for the cacophony of the modern world. We are among those of whom the Beloved Disciple writes in the prologue to his Gospel account: “the Word came to His own, and His own people received Him not” [John 1:11].
Because it’s always so in this valley of tears, God calls fallen man into silence so that there we might recognize our sins, and hear and heed God’s Word. The silence of Zechariah is what St. John of the Cross writes about: “What we need most in order to make [spiritual] progress is to be silent before this great God, with our appetites and our tongue.”
This silence is a means to man’s true end. This is the end for which God created man “in the beginning”: to share in the divine life of the Trinity in a holy and eternal silence. About this final silence, the end of all we are and do as disciples of the Word made Flesh, St. John of the Cross also speaks: “the Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.”
St. John the Baptist was born so that the Old Testament might die. Yet such a death was meant all along in God’s Providence to be fulfilled by a new life, like the grain of wheat that dies in order to bear much fruit. St. John the Baptist was born to preach the message of repentance: the need to accept ourselves as sinner, and the need to accept Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away our sins and those of the whole world.