Nativity of John the Baptist, 24th June 2020
In 2013, Pope Francis issued the exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium - “The Joy of the Gospel.” We did a study group on it here at the Good Shepherd over a series of lunchtimes. There are a couple of great lines encouraging us all to be joyful, which ought to make us sit up and talk notice. Here’s one: “An evangeliser must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral” and elsewhere, “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.”
It shouldn’t surprise us that there are slightly comical passages in the Scriptures, it is after all, a record of how God interacts with human beings so as to save them. It is not unusual for there to be laughter or smiling when we make a Confession, not because we don’t take our sinfulness seriously but because there is often, as we seek forgiveness and are assured of it, a realisation that we mustn’t take ourselves too seriously. We have such a comical scene I believe in our Gospel today, the naming of St John the Baptist, whose birth we celebrate. Zechariah, you will recall, had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel’s words of proclamation. Much was expected of Zechariah as much had been given him in the priesthood of the Old Covenant.
When, therefore, in the passage we heard just now, his wife Elizabeth says the child is to be called John, the attendants at the circumcision ask Zechariah, who must have seemed a slight comical old figure in the background, recently struck dumb. St Luke records that “they made signs” to Zechariah to find out what he wanted. Why on earth did they make signs?! They hadn’t been struck dumb at all; only Zechariah had! They were gesturing while perfectly able to speak and Zechariah has to cut through the comical situation by writing on a tablet that the name will indeed be John. All we need to complete the comical scene was for the scribes to say they couldn’t read it without their glasses on.
Another comical scene we might recall in the Scriptures is Genesis 18 where the three angelic beings are entertained by Abraham at Mamre. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, is listening to their conversation outside the tent: eavesdropping is presumably much easier in tents! The divine messengers tell Abraham that he and his equally-very-old wife will have a son. After all, he has been told he will be a father to many nations. Sarah giggles at the prospect, overhearing, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” God isn’t too happy when He hears Sarah giggling and she denies it. Often the biblical translations are so clunky and we read them in so formal a manner that we lose the sense of the vaguely absurd.
Think also of Peter’s release from prison in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 12. The angel of the Lord appears and takes Peter away. It takes him a while to realise what’s happening but eventually he does and he goes to the house of Mary, the mother of St Mark. A maid named Rhoda appears and hears Peter knocking at the gate and recognises his voice. Understandably, St Peter, being on the run, would be rather keen to get inside to safety and was relieved to have arrived at the home of friends. The maid having worked out it was Peter is very pleased - but she doesn’t let him in - and instead dashes off in the other direction to tell everyone the good news, leaving Peter stranded outside. St Luke records, “meanwhile Peter continued knocking.”
The teachings of Jesus too have such nuggets when you can imagine the Lord rolling His eyes. Think for example of James and John wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume the villages that didn’t accept Jesus (Luke 9:54). What does Jesus call them? The sons of thunder (Mark 3:17). Poor guys must have felt they were having their noses rubbed in it a bit. In the Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus clearly verbally jousts with her a bit and says, “Go, call your husband,” to which she replies, “I have no husband.” I’m not sure she’d worked out whom she was addressing yet, for Jesus can reply, “You have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.” A wry smile surely on our Lord’s face?
Enough, my friends, of this tour of mildly comical moments in the history of salvation. The call to joy is important and so John the Baptist leapt for joy in the womb of his mother, St Elizabeth, when she visited Our Lady, then pregnant with the Lord of Heaven of earth. The presence of Christ was hidden but John could perceive it. May we too be filled with joy when we encounter Christ and may our gladness be felt by others. Let’s not judge John the Baptist by appearances: camel skin and locusts and a message of repentance do not mean he was gloomy at all. Indeed the simplicity of His life meant he’d found his joy in Christ and that would last for ever. Amen.