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Annunciation Third Sunday

Season of Annunciation

Third Sunday: Luke 1:57-66
ANNOUNCEMENT ABOUT THE BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

INTRODUCTION

John the Baptist’s birth marked a new chapter in salvation history because there had been no prophet in Israel for the preceding four centuries. The neighbours and relatives who considered Elizabeth as accursed came to rejoice with her. Zechariah and Elizabeth circumcised the child on the eighth day, according to the Jewish tradition. God relieved Zachariah from his nine-month muteness when he obeyed the directive of Angel Gabriel by naming his child John. His first reaction when he regained his speech was “blessing God.

BIBLE TEXT

The Birth of John the Baptist

(Lk 1:57) When the time came for Elizabeth, she gave birth to a son. (58) Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her such great mercy and they rejoiced with her.

(59) When on the eighth day they came to perform the circumcision of the child, they wanted to name him Zechariah after his father. (60) But his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” (61) They said to her, “No one in your family has that name;” (62) and they asked the father by means of signs for the name he wanted to give. (63) Zechariah asked for a writing tablet and wrote on it, “His name is John,” and they were very surprised. (64) Immediately Zechariah could speak again and his first words were in praise of God.

(65) A holy fear came on all in the neighbourhood, and throughout the hills of Judea the people talked about these things. (66) As they heard this, they pondered in their hearts and wondered, “What will this child be?” For they understood that the power of the Lord was with him.

INTERPRETATION

(57) When the time came for Elizabeth, she gave birth to a son.

Elizabeth’s conception of John was miraculous. When Mary, with Jesus in her womb, visited Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit descended upon John even as he was in the womb of his mother.  

The Church celebrates John’s birthday on June 24th, six months before Christmas. This is an exception. The Church normally commemorates the death anniversary of its saints as it marks their passage from ‘church militant’ on earth to ‘church triumphant’ in heaven. John’s case is an exception because since the Holy Spirit came upon him while he was in his mother’s womb (Lk 1:15, 40-44), he was born without the stain of Original Sin.

(58) Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her such great mercy and they rejoiced with her.

John’s birth in the grand old age of his parents coupled with the extraordinary sign of his father being struck mute was the reason for the neighbours to gather at the child’s birth. They rejoiced with his aged mother Elizabeth. Because Elizabeth was ‘barren’, society had till now assumed that God was displeased with them. Their newfound joy was the fulfilment of Angel Gabriel’s promise to Zechariah: “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth” (Lk 1:14). They came again on the eighth day for the child’s circumcision.

(59) When on the eighth day they came to perform the circumcision of the child, they wanted to name him Zechariah after his father.

Circumcision
The circumcision is a symbol of the covenant between God and Abraham. The name for the act of circumcision is bris, which means “covenant.” God commanded Israelites, “When he is eight days old, every male among you will be circumcised, generation after generation; including the slaves born in your household or bought from a foreigner as slaves. Whether born in your household or bought as slaves, they must be circumcised. So my covenant will be written in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, will be cut off from his people for having broken my covenant” (Gen 17:12-14). The Jews continued circumcision from the time of Abraham, and it remained as a sign of their covenant with God.

Place of circumcision
The Israelites could perform the circumcision either in the synagogue or at home. In John’s case, the priests and relatives came to do it at home. Otherwise, Elizabeth could not be present for the ritual. According to the Mosaic Law, the mother was unclean for seven days if she gave birth to a boy. The parents should arrange the child’s circumcision on the eighth day. “Then she shall wait for thirty-three days to be purified of her bleeding. She shall not touch anything that is consecrated nor enter the sanctuary until the days of her purification are completed” (Lev 12:4). Since Elizabeth could not enter the synagogue for 40 days after John’s birth, the performers and the participants of circumcision came to Zechariah’s house to carry out the ritual.

The Eighth Day
Number eight, according to the Biblical numerology, stands for a new beginning. God completed the creation of the universe, including a day of rest in seven days. So, the eighth day means a new week or a fresh start. God’s covenant with Abraham through circumcision was also a new beginning of salvation. So, Israelites circumcised children on the eighth day. It signals the beginning of a child’s covenant with God and initiation into Israel. Even if the eighth day was a Sabbath, when God had prohibited any work, the Israelites performed circumcision on that day as an exception. This shows the eighth day’s importance.

One reason for selecting the eighth day for circumcision was that the newborn baby will live a complete week inclusive of a Sabbath. Hence the baby experienced the “holiness” of a Sabbath. Then he could make the covenant with God and thus join the Israelite community.

The medical science found out that the eighth day after birth is the best day for blood clotting and so it is a suitable time for circumcision. Blood clotting depends on platelets, prothrombin, and vitamin K. Prothrombin levels and vitamin K are at their peak on the eighth day. The omniscient God knew this and selected that day, though the humans did not know it until recently.

Naming of a child
The Jews named a male child near the birth or at the time of circumcision on the eighth day. They named girls within 30 days of their birth. The Jews gave the grandfather’s name and in exceptional cases the father’s name, to the male child. They gave the father’s name when they were unsure of his name’s continuation to the next generations. The priest and relatives considered giving Zechariah’s name to his child. Otherwise, his name could not extend to the next generation because John was his only son who will remain single with Nazirite vow.

A person’s name had great significance in Biblical times. Parents named a child based on the essence of the person, divine role in his birth, his birth order, his character, his future mission, his physical trait, or where he was born. For example, Adam means the man, a human being, or red (colour of the earth) (Gen 2:7), Noah means rest or comfort (Gen 5:29), Abraham means the father of a multitude (Gen 17:5), Moses means drawn out of the waters (Ex 2:10), David means beloved (1 Sam 13:14) and Jesus means saviour or ‘Jehovah is salvation’ (Mt 1:21).

(60) But his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.”

In the Biblical tradition, either the mother or the father could name the child. For example, Leah and Rachel named their children and their maidservants’ children (Gen 29:31–30:24). Hanna named her son Samuel (1 Sam 1:20). Abram named his son Ishmael from Hagar (Gen 16:15). Moses named his son Gershom (Ex 2:22). There were exceptions when others also named children: Pharaoh’s daughter named her adopted son Moses (Ex 2:10). Naomi’s female neighbours named her son Obed (Ruth 4:17).

Since Zechariah was mute, the priests and relatives asked Elizabeth to name her son. She knew that the child had a God- given name, John. She obviously would have got this information from Zechariah, who could communicate through writing.

(61) They said to her, “No one in your family has that name.”

In John’s case, the family bypassed the traditional practice because God had already named him, marking him out for a special mission. Thus, John belonged more to God than Zechariah’s family.

(62) And they asked the father by means of signs for the name he wanted to give.

Naming a child was the father’s right. Since John was deaf and dumb, they did not ask him first. However, the priests and relatives doubted whether Elizabeth was mistaken. So they asked Zechariah. However, they had to use the sign language because he could not talk to them (Lk 1:22).

(63) Zechariah asked for a writing tablet and wrote on it, “His name is John,” and they were very surprised.

Since Zechariah could not say the name, he asked for a tablet. It was a wooden piece with a wax coating. The writing material was a stick like a stylus. Instead of “his name shall be John,” Zechariah wrote, “John is his name” closing any chance of discussion on the matter. God had revealed that name to him through Angel Gabriel.

In exceptional cases, God names or renames a person because of that person’s special assignment. Examples of God-given names before birth are Ishmael (Gen 16:11), Isaac (Gen 17:19), Jezreel (Hos 1:4), Lo-Ruhamah (Hos 1:6), Lo-Ammi (Hos 1:9), Jesus (Mt 1:21) (Lk 1:31) and John (Lk 1:13). God might have named Adam. Examples of God renaming are: Abram to Abraham (Gen 17:5), Sarai to Sarah (Gen 17:15), Jacob to Israel (Gen 32:29; 35:10), Solomon to Jedidiah (2 Sam 12:24-25) and Jesus renamed Simon to Peter (Mt 16:17-18).

Rachel had named her second son as Benoni at her deathbed. However, Jacob, the child’s father, renamed him Benjamin (Gen 35:18). In John’s case, both Elizabeth and Zechariah gave the same name because Angel Gabriel had revealed that name to Zechariah.

John is the shorter version of Jehohanan, which means “Yahweh’s gift” or “God is gracious.” So, John’s name signified that he was God’s gracious gift to his parents at their advanced age.

(64) Immediately Zechariah could speak again, and his first words were in praise of God.

When Zechariah obeyed the command of God by naming the child John, God relieved him from his nine-month silence. That also became a proof of the divine intervention for the people around. Zachariah’s first reaction after regaining his speech was “blessing God.”

(65) A holy fear came on all in the neighborhood, and throughout the hills of Judea the people talked about these things.

“Holy fear” means reverence, obedience, submission, and worship in awe to God. The people who saw the unusual events unfold before their eyes felt an increase in their faith. They shared their experience all over the hill country of Judea. So John became popular right from his birth!

(66) As they heard this, they pondered in their hearts and wondered, “What will this child be?” For they understood that the power of the Lord was with him.

“The hand of the Lord” is symbolic of the wonderful divine power, providence, care, grace, and favour manifested through the chosen people. God formed John almost as an Elijah redux, with the mission to prepare the way for the Lord (Mal 3:23-24; 4:5-6).

When people found the hand of the Lord in John’s life, they were wondering what his future would be. When the hand of the Lord is with us, we become God’s instruments, and God will do wonders through us.

MESSAGE

Rejoice with Others
When Zechariah and Elizabeth were blessed with offspring in their old age, their neighbours and relatives came to rejoice with them. When we notice the blessings and achievements of others, we must also rejoice and praise God with them.

Birth and Baptism
God gives the soul and shapes the child in the womb of its mother. Birth is the child’s entry into the world and physical separation from the mother. The child inherits good and bad elements from the parents and other ancestors. So, people check the genetic history for physical health, character, morality, and spirituality. We are spiritually born dead and not eligible for heaven until we receive baptism. It is our spiritual birth as Jesus told to Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21). So, in the spiritual sense, our baptismal date is more important than the date of birth. Some Christians celebrate their annual baptismal day rather than their annual birthday.

Day of Baptism
Circumcision continued the covenant God made with Abraham, the father of faith. In the New Testament, baptism replaces circumcision. Based on Jewish law and the Catholic tradition, baptism must take place within a few weeks after the birth of the child. According to the Canon Law, “Parents are obliged to take care that infants are baptized in the first few weeks. As soon as possible after birth or even before it, they are to go to the pastor to request the sacrament for their child and to be prepared properly for it” (Can 867§1). However, some parents postpone their children’s baptism to a later date to have it along with the annual birthday celebration of the child or along with some other family function. This is not in tune with the directive of the church. Children born of Catholic parents have the right to receive the Sacraments of Initiation, to be free from original sin, and to be a citizen of God’s kingdom as soon as possible after their birth. Parents shall not delay this God-given privilege of children.

Naming a child
We should drop the trend of giving fancy names with no meaning or no Biblical significance. Canon Law states, “Parents, sponsors, and the pastor are to take care that a name foreign to Christian sensibility is not given” (Can 855). We must respect the Jewish-Christian tradition of giving the first name according to the names of grandparents for both male and female children in the family. However, many young parents give newly coined names as the first names for their children and include the grandparents’ names as middle names. The first name shall be the name of the grandparent, the middle name, the name of the father, and the last name that of the family.

Teach children to study and learn from their patron saint.
It is encouraging that in many parishes, children use the costumes of their patron saints on All Saints’ Day, instead of celebrating Halloween. We should encourage and continue this. Celebrating the feast days of patron saints of children, guiding them to learn more about them, and encouraging them to seek the intercession of their patron saints will help the spiritual formation of children.

Faith formation of children
Children are not the private property of parents. God and nation also have the right over them. We should train them according to the laws of God and the nation. The Church promotes infant baptism on condition that the parents and godparents take the responsibility to train the baptized child according to the Church’s teaching and the traditions of the particular (sui juris) church. So, parents shall take their children to their own (rite) church for religious education training. Along with faith formation, they should also take part in the liturgical services and pious associations in the church.