Annunciation First Sunday

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold (Luke 1:5-25)

INTRODUCTION:

Zechariah and Elizabeth did not give up their faith even though they were childless for long time and were ashamed in front of the society for that reason. They continued to remain faithful to the Lord and served God and His people. Though Zechariah knew that Elizabeth was barren, he did not hate her or divorce her even though childlessness could be a ground for divorce during those days. The Lord, after testing their faith, rewarded them with a son who became the forerunner of the Messiah. Thus, the parents were also blessed, honored, and remembered through their son who was born at a time of no hope. Let us also keep up our faith amid our unanswered requests to God.

 Announcement of the Birth of John

Bible Text

(5) In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. (6) Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. (7) But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. (8) Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, (9) according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. (10) Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, (11) the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. (12) Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. (13) But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. (14) And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, (15) for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, (16) and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. (17) He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.” (18) Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (19) And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. (20) But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” (21) Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. (22) But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute. (23) Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home. (24) After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived, and she went into seclusion for five months, saying, (25) “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”

 Interpretation

The Prehistory of Jesus

Just as Abraham, the Father of all the faithful, has a prehistory described in Genesis chapters 1-11, Jesus the savior of all people, also has a prehistory that is given in the New Testament more by Luke than by any other Evangelists. This includes:

(1) Announcement of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25)

(2) Announcement of the Birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:26-38)

(3) Mary Visiting Elizabeth (Luke1:39-45)

(4) The Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:46-56)

(5) The birth of John (Luke 1:57-66)

(6) The Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1: 67-80).

 Matthew starts his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus tracing back to David, the famous king of the Israel and to Abraham, the father of faith (Matthew 1:1-17). God had made covenant with both and had made promise of a savior of the world from their lineage. So, Matthew’s pre-history of Jesus goes back to Abraham tracing back from the lineage of Joseph the foster (legal) father of Jesus. Luke gives a genealogy of Jesus through his mother Mary (Luke 3:23-38). Here the genealogy of Jesus goes back through King David to Adam, the son God. The first covenant of God with humanity was through Adam. God had promised a savior after the fall of the first parents. (Genesis 3:15).

(5) In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

In the days of Herod, King of Judea
Here Luke gives the political backdrop of the time because King Herod the Great had a prominent role in the early stage of Jesus’ life. Herod was the one who put the life of Jesus in danger. He was the King of Judea (40/37 BC – 4 BC) approved by Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. However, since Herod was the son of an Idumean Antipater, a non-Jew and not from the lineage of King David whose descendants were supposed to be the kings of Jews, Herod was not acceptable to the Jews as their king. So, Herod was afraid when he heard from the Magi that a king was born for the Jews. So, he ordered to kill the children below two years of age causing the Holy Family to flee to Egypt and remain there for few years as refugees.

Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah
Just as David’s family was blessed to have kings of Jews including the promised Messiah descend from it, Aaron’s family was blessed to have priests emerge from it. Every direct descendant of Aaron was automatically a member of Levitical priesthood. Since there were many priests by birthright, King David had divided them into 24 sections. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist was from the division of Abijah, eighth of the 24 sections who served in the temple of Jerusalem. (1 Chronicle 24:10).

Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth
Jesus’ mother and foster father were from the royal family of David. Similarly, the parents of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, were from the priestly family of Aaron. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Levite priests were careful to marry from their own tribe to keep the dignity of their priesthood. Though Mary and Elizabeth were relatives both belonged to different tribes of Israel.

(6) Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. (7) But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years.

Though Righteous, Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless
In the sight of their contemporaries, the childlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth was a punishment from God. According to the popular belief of the time, the society could reasonably assume that, though Zechariah and Elizabeth appeared to be pious, they were not justifiable before God. However, the Word of God testified that both were righteous in the eyes of God. They were “observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.”

Despite their faithfulness to God, they did not get any answer for their prayers for a child in time. Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. Some of the prominent persons in the Salvation History were born late to their parents when it was impossible by the laws of nature.  Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, and Samuel were forerunners of John Baptist in this regard. According to the Proto-evangelium of St. James, Mary the mother of Jesus was also born late to her parents Joachim and Anne.

(8) Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, (9) according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. (10) Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering,

Burning incense per division’s turn
All priests served in the temple of Jerusalem during the busy season of the three main Jewish feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Feast of the Tabernacles. At other times, each division of priests served two terms of one week each in a year. Even then, all priests of the division could not be in the temple during the off season. So, they were selected by lot which was a selection from God. Many would not get this opportunity. So, Zechariah must have been delighted for his selection for priestly duty and had prepared himself spiritually for the service.

The temple of Jerusalem had different sections. The most sacred place was the Holy of Holies, a dark place where only the high priest entered once a year on the feast day of Atonement with a lamp to incense. This was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the first temple built by King Solomon. However, Prophet Jeremiah had removed it before the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians. (2 Maccabees 2:4-8). The Ark was never restored for the second temple built by Ezra or the third temple reconstructed by King Herod the Great.

At the entrance of the Holy of Holies within the Holy Place was the golden altar of incense where incense was burnt every day before the morning sacrifice and after the evening sacrifice. Only priests were allowed in the Holy Place where there were also menorah lamps and the table of showbread on which there were 12 pieces of bread representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The priests used to replace the bread with fresh ones on every sabbath. Ordinary people would pray outside the entrance of the Holy Place waiting for the priest to come and bless them. They could not see what was happening inside the Holy Place of the temple because of the veil that was separating them from the Holy Place.

(11) the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. (12) Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. (13) But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.

Angel appearing to Zechariah
The name of the angel of the Lord was Gabriel, whose name is specified in three instances in the Bible. The first appearance of Angel Gabriel was to Daniel (Daniel 8:16) to interpret his dream, the second was to Zechariah (Luke 1:19), and the third was to Mary (Luke 1:26). What was special in the case of Zechariah was that this was the only case where the angel appeared to someone in the temple.

Zechariah was afraid of the sudden appearance of the angel on the right side of the altar. He was expecting to be alone in the Holy Place. This was the first time in his life that he ever experienced the presence of an angel. It was not a dream. He was also terrified because he was worried about having made a mistake. So, the angel first told him that there was nothing to fear due to his appearance. We notice that when the Risen Lord appeared to his apostles, who were familiar with him during his earthly life, were terrified at the sudden sight of the Lord. (Luke 24:36). “Do not be afraid” was often a phrase used at the time of a divine vision in the Bible. For instance, vision to Abraham (Gen 15:1), Joshua’s vision of God (Joshua 1:9), vision to Daniel (Daniel 10:12, 19), Angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:30), and angel to shepherds (Luke 2:10).

Promise of a son
Why did an angel from the Lord had to appear and communicate beforehand that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a child? God could have given them a child without first giving the message. God wanted to reveal that this extraordinary childbirth was for a special purpose in salvation history. God allowed the suffering of persons of faith in order that they may be “tested” in their faith and thus grow in fidelity. This assured them that this child has an extraordinary mission to accomplish.

A pre-named child of God
The Angel Gabriel declared the name of this special child to be born. Traditionally, the father of the child used to give the child a name according to the names of the forefathers in the family declaring that the child was his beloved one. Here the angel announces that the child would be a male and had to be named John. Naming the child on the eighth day after birth during circumcision was the Jewish practice of the time. Here we see an exception. The child was named before he was conceived. Instead of the human father, the Divine Father named him making him God’s special child born of human parents.

The name of a person expresses his personality. The name John means “Yahweh has shown favor.” This favor was not just for his parents at an unnatural and unexpected time but also for all humanity. This favor was the indication of the coming of the long and eagerly awaited Messiah.

(14) And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, (15) for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, (16) and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. (17) He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”

Role of the child to be born

The angel assured joy and gladness to the parents at the child’s birth, which was quite natural because this was their dream come true. And many would rejoice with the elderly parents at his birth. Just like his parents, John would also be great in the sight of the Lord. Much of what emerged according to the words of the angel was also like a prophesy come true. John like some great people of the past was also consecrated by the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:2) and set apart for the service of the Lord. Nazirites had to abstain from drinking wine or any alcohol related items (Numbers 6:3-4). They were not supposed to cut their hair (Num. 6:5). And they were not to encounter corpses even of their parents (Num. 6:7). Examples of such Bible characters are Samson (Judges 13:4–5) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11).

Another prophesy was that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. We later read in the gospel of Luke that this child to be born “leaped with joy” in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:41) when Mary greeted Elizabeth, his mother.

Because of the preaching of John the Baptist, many people turned towards God repenting of their sins, and washing away their inequities through baptism in the river Jordan. John is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi: “Now I am sending my messenger - he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple.” (Malachi 3:1). Malachi again said, “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, Before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day; He will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers.” (Malachi 4: 5-6 / 3:23-24). The angel said that this child to be born was the second coming of Elijah.

(18) Then Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (19) And the angel said to him in reply, “I am Gabriel, who stand before God. I was sent to speak to you and to announce to you this good news. (20) But now you will be speechless and unable to talk until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time.” (21) Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and were amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. (22) But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was gesturing to them but remained mute.

Unbelief of Zechariah and a punishment
Zechariah ’s unbelief was quite natural. In a similar situation when Mary expressed her doubt in Luke 1:34, she was praised and reassured (Luke 1:35-37). However, Zechariah’s doubt brings on punishment from the angel. Zechariah’s muteness was more than a punishment. It was a supernatural sign for the people who have been waiting outside the Holy Place of the temple, for his wife Elizabeth, and for their neighbors. Without this sign, they would have doubted his claim of a vision by the angel. The punishment of Zechariah was not to last long, rather just ten months. As promised, he was released from it when he fulfilled the command of God through the angel to name the child.

(23) Then, when his days of ministry were completed, he went home. (24) After this time his wife Elizabeth conceived, and she went into seclusion for five months, saying, (25) “So has the Lord done for me at a time when he has seen fit to take away my disgrace before others.”

God’s time to take away the disgrace
The scripture is clear that Elizabeth conceived only after the vision of the angel to Zechariah. Elizabeth probably believed Zechariah because he was mute after his return from his sacred service in the temple. Elizabeth also expressed her belief in God’s timing rather than their expectation of natural birth of a child. She probably went into seclusion to avoid disgrace from the public given that she had conceived a baby in her old age. She was also happy that even at that advanced age her disgrace of childlessness had given way to a great blessing from God.

 MESSAGE

1. Marrying from one’s own faith and tribe was the practice of the Israelites because that helped them to keep fidelity to God and traditions of the tribe. King Solomon’s failure was that he worshiped the gods of his pagan wives. Keeping Catholic faith and one’s own liturgical rite should be given importance.

2. Zechariah and Elizabeth did not give up their faith even though they were childless and disgraced in front of the society. They continued to remain faithful to the Lord and served God and His people. Though Zechariah knew that Elizabeth was barren, he did not hate her or divorce her even though childlessness could be grounds for divorce. The Lord, after the testing their faith, rewarded them with a son who became the forerunner of the Messiah. Thus, the parents are also blessed, honored, and remembered through this son who was born at a time of no hope. Let us also keep up our faith amid our unanswered requests to God.

3. God has a timing which we do not comprehend. Let us wait for the Lord to act through us. All we can do is to observe “all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” as Zechariah and Elizabeth did. That is why Jesus taught us to pray “Thy will be done.”

4. Like John sent by God with a mission in this world, we also have a mission designed by God. Our success lies in finding and fulfilling our role in the family and society to serve the Lord our God.

5. Despite the unbelief and punishment, Zechariah and Elizabeth trusted and cooperated with God. That led them to joy and gladness as foretold by the angel. Sometimes we feel like God punishes the righteous. We must realize in these circumstances that God has a plan for our life.

6. Societal expectations and opinions pressure us to turn away from God or to turn against Christ’s Church. We must be strong to follow God’s providence despite humiliations. Noah’s story is an example in this truth. Noah was a man different from ordinary people who were sinners. Even so, God’s directions to make a ship on dry land saved his family. His contemporaries might have ridiculed him. However, the public only later realize that they were wrong and Noah was right.

7. Children are not just the result of the union of parents but also the intervention of God who gives the soul. The attempts to have a child by Zachariah and Elizabeth failed at their reproductive stage because God withheld the birth of the child. Let us thank the Lord for the lives of our children and take care of the children responsibly according to God’s plan for them.