Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Today the Gospel reminds us of the joy of the birth of a child. I believe that Elizabeth represents in a small way the whole people of Israel; the biblical characters are collective characters, who represent society. I believe that this barren mother — who gives birth to this child who will be the prophet that will prepare the way of the Messiah — incarnates in a small way the entire people.
Theirs was a sterile, infertile story, a story of pain and despair. Elizabeth belongs to a people that ordinarily were oppressed and victimized; at that very moment, they were a people living with an army of occupation within their borders. They were suffering under the yoke of the greatest power in the world at that time, the Roman Empire. Theirs was a sterile, barren history.
It’s possible that in a sterile history something new may emerge; it’s possible that a spiral of injustice, corruption, social imbalance, tyrannical powers, and death may one day be broken. This is what the birth of John the Baptist announces: just as from the womb of Elizabeth a creature is born, the Lord can bring forth life from a story of darkness and death. This is why it’s important to be nourished by the proclamation of the Gospel, because what we affirm in faith, we affirm with all our conviction, even knowing that there are no logical reasons that permit us to affirm it. When there are no reasons to hope, when everything seems to be over, when paths are closed, when everything is filled with uncertainty and darkness, and when our powerlessness makes us suffer when confronted with the power of evil that appears to be invincible and increasingly monstrous: only faith, which is trust, still allows us to hope.
This is good news. This is why Elizabeth and Zechariah insist on the name of the child: Yôḥānnān, “the Lord gives his grace”. The Lord bends down benevolently. The Lord is in Heaven, “enthroned on high”, says Psalm 113 (Ps 113:5), but he stoops or bends down to look at heaven and earth (Ps 113:6). God’s greatness is in stooping, in stooping down, and when he bends and stoops down he does not do it in a neutral way. Psalm 113 says that when he stoops down to look at heaven and earth he lifts up the poor from the garbage heap; he restores the helpless, becoming a part of the vulnerable and the victims. Psalm 113 further says that he makes the destitute sit as princes (Ps 113:8) and gives the barren woman a place as a joyful mother of children (Ps 113:9). Look how in the Bible, feminine sterility and historical catastrophe go together; the Lord bends down in front of these realities — he is not an apathetic, distant God.
With John the Baptist, the Lord begins to stoop down and, so to speak, to ‘lean over’ human history, literally inclining himself. God’s inclination will be so great that he himself will enter this history as a human being, no longer making a creature to be born by the fruit of the union of two parents, but God himself, through the work of the divine Spirit, will be born of a virgin mother, Jesus of Nazareth, “God with us” (Mt 1:23). With John, this inclination begins; this should give us consolation and hope.
The greatness of the almighty Lord ─ no one is mightier than He ─ is in abasing and humbling Himself. Human powers believe that by showing their authority with force, by arrogantly running over others, by keeping themselves in power in order to dominate and serve others, they show that they are great. But they show that they really are small; they show that they are vile; woe to them! The one who is greatest bows down; he bends down and listens to the cry of the poor, the victim, and the childless. That is why the name, “John” is so important: “God gives his grace”. Let’s not forget, we need this good news that can come only from God.
Silvio José Báez, O.C.D.
Auxiliary Bishop of Managua
Homily (excerpts), Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist
Sunday, 24 June 2018
Divine Mercy Parish, Managua, Nicaragua
Sadly, less than one month after this Mass, the situation in Nicaragua grew darker. Nicaraguan police and paramilitary forces who were attacking students at a nearby university began shooting at Divine Mercy Church and rectory when students ran there for shelter. Journalist Joshua Partlow from The Washington Post was embedded with the students and priests inside the church during the siege.
Two students were killed there; more than a dozen were injured. To this day the church bears the scars of the snipers’ bullets and the Russian rifles. Although the bullets marred the beautiful image of Divine Mercy over the altar, they could not penetrate the tabernacle. Partlow’s article, ‘They are shooting at a church’: Inside the 15-hour siege by Nicaraguan paramilitaries on university students remains a harrowing testimony of the “increasingly monstrous” brutality of which Bishop Báez spoke in 2018, a brutality that has only increased. Pray for Nicaragua.
Bishop Báez wrote, “Let’s unite in prayer with the persons who are praying this morning in the vicinity of Divine Mercy Parish! May the Lord protect our priests and the other persons who are in the parish. Lord, bless Nicaragua and grant us peace! (Photo by Wilfredo Miranda)
The Gospel reading and other scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America as accessed from the Bible Gateway website.