Daily Homily: You, Child, Will Be Called Prophet of the Most High

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

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Isaiah 49:1-6

Psalm 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15

Acts 13:22-26

Luke 1:57-66, 80

The Liturgy of the Word applies the second song of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah to John the Baptist. During Holy Week, we read all four songs and saw how they were all fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The first song (42:1-7) envisions God speaking to the people and presenting his chosen servant to them as the one who will bring justice to the nations. The second song (49:1-13) is the Servant’s prayerful reflection on his call and mission. The servant knows he has been chosen from his mother’s womb and, even though it seems like he toiled in vain, he knows that God will glorify him. Not only does the Servant restore Israel, but he also brings salvation to all nations.

John the Baptist, however, is not the Messiah; he is the one who prepares the way for the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. The second song of Isaiah, then, only applies partially to John. First, like the Servant, he was chosen from his mother’s womb. God visits him in Jesus, and he leaps in the womb before his Lord, much like David, who leaped before the Ark of the Covenant. Second, God gave John his name through the Angel Gabriel. Third, John would end his life in prison, and so, on the surface, it seems like he toiled in vain; yet he believed to the end and trusted in God and in his Servant, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Fourth, John gathers the people of Judah – the Gospel tells us that all Judea went out to see him. Fifth, although he was not the light to the nations, he came to bear witness to the light (John 1:8). He was the voice who testified to Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant of the Lord, who would take away the sins of the world. John knew that his baptism was incapable of taking away sin, for it was only a baptism of repentance.

As the Gospel says, John spent his days in the desert until the day of his manifestation to the people of Israel. The people gathered around him in the desert, symbolizing the preparation for a New Exodus to be led by the New Moses, Jesus Christ. John prepared the people for this New Exodus and went before the people in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah (Luke 1:27). During his life, Elijah tirelessly combated the idolatry of Ba’al, a false pagan gods. Likewise, John would ask the people to turn from their former ways of sin and look forward to the coming of the Messiah. He turned the disobedient to the wisdom of the just and prepared the people for the Lord. John bears witness to Christ in his preaching, by his baptism of conversion, and through his martyrdom (CCC, 523).

Even though he was beheaded by King Herod, John was «not put to shame» (Isaiah 49:7). He glorified God through his life and was called by Jesus: «the greatest of those born of woman». At the same time, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John (Matthew 11:11-12). He is the greatest born of woman because he is the culmination of the prophets: «He alone of all the prophets pointed out the Lamb of redemption» (Preface). John brings the cycle of the prophets, begun with Elijah, to a close. At the same time, John’s greatness is nothing compared to the greatness of those who enter the kingdom of heaven. More than a judgment about John’s degree of holiness, Jesus is contrasting the Old Covenant and the New Covenant that will be established by his blood.

Jesus speaks about the greatness of John in relation to his being «born of woman»; he speaks the greatness of those who believe in him in relation to their being «born of God». As the Catechism teaches: «To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little. Even more: to become ‘children of God’ we must be ‘born from above’ or ‘born of God'» (CCC, 526).

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Jason Mitchell

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