Friday of the 4th Week of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4, 23-24; Luke 1:57-66
Today’s story from St. Luke is like a parable: On the surface, it tells the story of the birth and naming of John the Baptist. But there is a deeper level, which teaches us about the action of God in the lives of his people, including us.
Like most parables, it works best if we put ourselves into the story. Since Luke gives such a prominent role to the relatives and neighbors of Zechariah and Elizabeth, let’s look at it from their point of view. When we do that, we see some pretty big surprises.
The first is that Elizabeth was even pregnant. No one seemed to know! Note how Luke is careful of the order: First she gives birth, then the relatives and neighbors hear about the baby. Of course, they rejoice, and we sympathize; we all know how it feels to hear good news of a prayer being answered in the way we hoped – especially such a big way!
Then comes the surprise that starts an argument. Without asking, the relatives and neighbors assume the baby will have his father’s name. When Elizabeth objects, they get argumentative, almost dismissive, and appeal to Zechariah. When he confirms the name “John,” they give in but are clearly perplexed about this unexpected break with tradition.
Finally, the biggest surprise: Zechariah is healed. While Luke describes their reaction as “fear,” the implication in the original language is that it has begun to dawn on the friends and relatives that God is behind all this.
It is this realization that brings us to the deeper meanings of the story. I see at least three.
First, God works in unexpected ways. A woman beyond childbearing age, bearing a child; the obvious name for the baby not chosen; his father, after confirming the name, suddenly able to hear and speak again. All unexpected, but at the same time, not surprising. As we see throughout Scripture, God works in ways we don’t expect and through those who appear least likely. The lesson is clear: God has a plan in need of no revision, chooses who he wills to accomplish it, and provides the grace necessary. All he asks is that we do our part. So, the question is: Do I submit my will totally to God and his plan for me, no matter how difficult or humbling, and do I ask for the grace to do it?
Second, if divine revelation seems sudden, that’s because we haven’t been paying close attention. Scripture tells us time and again that God is always close, always active, and intimately involved in every aspect of our existence. The problem is, as the relatives and neighbors demonstrate, we tend to drift into uninvolvement. They didn’t even know that Elizabeth was pregnant, let alone that she had the baby. Why? Perhaps for the same reason that we lose touch with people: Neglect, either intentional or unintentional. Again, we need to ask ourselves: Have we allowed relationships to drift, carried grudges and allowed them to persist, or wait for others to make the first move?
Then there is the story’s most important lesson: That everything in life, expected or not, points to Christ. This is summarized most perfectly in John’s own name, chosen for him by the Holy Spirit, for “John” means, “God is gracious.” To John, Christ Jesus, the source of all grace, was everything. He knew, as St. Therese of Lisieux once said, that “everything is a grace, everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love – difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs – everything, because through them, she learns humility, realizes her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events – to the heart that loves, all is well.”