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Birth of John the Baptist: Interrupting silence

Isaiah 49, 1-6; Acts 13, 22-26; Luke 1, 57-66.80.

John the Baptist’s birth is eventful enough to break the normal cycle of the ordinary Sundays. We may think the Baptist was special because he was the messenger sent to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah. More than that, he is outstanding in the liturgical cycle because he was a turning point in the history of salvation.

John was an interruption in the history of biblical prophetism and in the immediate run-up to the Jesus event, but in a manner that was against all expectations. Today’s gospel reading from St Luke gives an account of a silence interrupted in the person of Zechariah, John’s father, who in the same gospel is said to have been silenced since the moment he received the promise of a son at his advanced age.

Now in today’s gospel, and at the instant he saw that promise come true, “his power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God”. Zechariah’s silence can very easily be seen as representing God’s silence for quite a long 400-year period in the history of Israel. It was a long dark night for Israel who had never known in its history such a long interruption on the part of God and a vacuum of prophets.

Now with John the Baptist this silence ended. John was a radical break with Israel’s past. He was the son of a priest and had all the requisites to conform to the system and enter the priestly fold. Yet he broke the long silence not as a priest in the temple but as a prophet in the desert.

People at the time needed to be led not towards the temple and in conformity with the usual rituals of religion that can leave much to be desired. It was time now to lead God’s people out of the temple, in search of a desert perspective, in search of a God who is not to be found in the temple demanding a religion of sacrifices, but a God who is more in real life situations demanding justice and peace, true love and true religion, as well as a change of heart.

One of the worst malaise of any society is when there are no prophetic voices around or when these voices are not heeded. Israel had gone through all this. Today we seem to be at a point in time when we are tired of the promises of religion, when we are even disillusioned with the God we worship in our churches.

B.H. Streeter, a British biblical scholar of late 19th/early 20th century, in The Buddha and the Christ, wrote: “The world does not like people who try to make it a better place. Or rather, it likes and admires them in theory, and from a distance. Hence humanity now, as of old, is busy making unpleasant the lives of the prophets that are with it, while celebrating the centenaries of their predecessors who are safely dead”.

In our times we need a John the Baptist to break the deafening silence of our headlines, or rather that is making us numb in the face of the pains and tribulations of so many who cry for justice in a world turned digital but less human.

The caged children on the US border with Mexico these days speak loud and clear about modern-day politics. One could also mention the immigration issue that from time to time resurfaces but which, for so many reasons and motives, remains by and large on the back- burner of our businesses, making us so insensitive to millions of refugees who are simply disposable numbers rather than people.

The question is whether this vicious circle can ever be broken. The issue, though, may sound like a rant we’ve heard repeatedly before since the Holocaust, and after Rwanda and Srebrenica in the heart of Europe.

Our churches and our celebrations have become too baroque to let us listen to the voices that cry out for help or even to let us grasp the prophetism of God’s word that is still proclaimed in our noisy rituals. Perhaps even today, in the footsteps of John the Baptist, we need to take more the standpoint of the desert and exit our temples to let God’s word interrupt the silence of conformity that is very areligious and that is simply making a parody of our religion and of our liturgies.

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