This is one of the more significant festivals in the course of the year, though I don't remember hearing much about it as I was growing up. I love the Holy Gospel for this day, including not only St. John's nativity, but his circumcision and naming, and then the song of Zechariah, the Benedictus, which continues to serve the Church as one of the canticles at the Office of Matins. Everything about St. John, even from the womb and in his infancy, is pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God, which is of course the best and most and important thing about the Forerunner. He gets to be the Best Man of our heavenly Bridegroom, and though he comes neither eating nor drinking, he raises a toast to the One who is greater than he, our kinsman Redeemer, and calls us to rejoice in Him.
Among those born of women, our Lord Himself testifies, there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist. Of course, the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth are extraordinary. His parents were righteous and devout, pious and holy, living by grace through faith in the Word of God; yet, they had grown old without the blessing of children. Here are faithful Abraham and Sarah all over again. When Zechariah received the message of the angel Gabriel, that his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son in her old age, it seemed to him too good to be true. How often the words and promises of God seem that way to us! But the Lord was true to His Word, and the Church celebrates today the birth of the promised son.
When the news gets out that the formerly-barren old Elizabeth has given birth, her neighbors rejoice in the mercy of the Lord upon her. It struck me this week, as I was preparing to preach on this Gospel, that His mercy was shown not only in the fact that she conceived in her old age, but especially in the fact that both she and St. John survived the ordeal of pregnancy, labor and delivery. Having seen how much harder such things have become for my own wife, at age 40 for example (when Gerhardt was born), as compared to age 20 (when DoRena was born), I marvel at what it must have meant for an old woman like Elizabeth to carry and deliver a baby. Nowhere do the blessing of God and the curse of sin come together more poignantly and personally than in the bearing of children. It is by the mercy of God that mother and child are preserved, despite the consequences of the fall into sin and the constant threat of death.
Some of the early church fathers were of a mind that St. John entered the wilderness immediately after his birth, already as an infant. My wife asked me, when I made this observation, whether he was supposed to have been raised by wolves or something. I remember an old movie, from my childhood, about a boy who was lost in the wild and raised by wolves, which I considered incredibly cool at the time (and I even wished, on occasion, that I could have been so lucky as to be raised by wolves). Well, I don't know what the church fathers would have thought about such things as that, but thinking about the possibilitiy of St. John entering the wilderness already as an infant did make me wonder about how long his parents may have lived after his birth. Given the hardness of his life, as the last and greatest Prophet, as the preacher of repentance, it would not have been out of character for him to have lived his entire life in the wild. The Lord would surely have been able to preserve Him even there. And maybe it is the case that giving birth to him was enough to do his mother in before too long.
We are not told, in any case, that Zechariah or Elizabeth ever saw the Lord Jesus Christ. He was there in utero at the Nativity of St. John, hidden in the womb of His Mother, St. Mary. But that dear Blessed Virgin returned to Nazareth, then journeyed to Bethlehem for the Nativity of our Lord, and had to flee into Egypt while He was yet an infant. There is certainly no indication that the holy parents of St. John the Baptist lived to see their son grow into adulthood, to hear his preaching or receive his Baptism.
That was the other thing that really struck me in my preparation for this morning's preaching. Though Zechariah had doubted and questioned the word and promise of the Lord concerning the conception and birth of his son, and he was therefore left unable to speak for the next ten months or so, his mouth was opened in praise and thanksgiving when he called his son by the name the Lord had called him. Okay, fair enough, he got to see the fulfillment of that promise, and at first I was thinking that he had that advantage over us. But consider the Benedictus, his song of praise unto the Lord. No longer does Zechariah doubt and question the words and promises of God. He confesses what has not yet happened, and what he will not live to see happen, as though it is already an accomplished fact. Here there is the sort of faith that is wrought by the Word and Spirit of God, and by no other means than that. It is the faith by which we also live in the sure and certain hope of that which we do not yet see or experience.
The conception and birth of faith in our hearts, as also the new birth of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism, is no less miraculous than the conception and birth of St. John the Baptist to old Zechariah and barren Elizabeth. Nor is the conception and birth of each and every child any less the work of God, His gift and blessing, than the creation of faith and the gift of new life in Christ. In both cases, we receive these works of God under the cross, where they are not always easy to bear. But the One who promises is faithful, and He will not fail to accomplish all that He has spoken. Both the bearing of children and the bearing of the cross in every case are hard things to endure, and yet it is out of the curse that the Lord brings forth the blessing by His own Cross.