Catholic Bible Study for the Solemnity of the birth of Saint John the Baptist:
Our lives are made of broken promises, promises that we make to ourselves and are unable to keep. And yet, somehow, these promises help us live because they spur us on and give us a goal. There are often forgotten promises and shaky promises. But sometimes there are promises that we do keep but that enslave us, like the promise to hate, the promise to never speak to someone again, and the promise to never forgive.
Then there are the daily promises, promises to see one another again, promises to pray for someone in need, promises to help someone. If the moon is full of forgotten things, as Ariosto wrote in Orlando Furioso, then it ought to be full of our promises.
A promise is a commitment that ought to be honored, and that keeps the other present in our minds. Love is always a promise: I commit to remember you at all times. Perhaps for this reason and in this way we ought to understand the way in which God presents Himself in the Bible: the relationship between God and His people, between God and humanity is marked by a promise. God presents Himself as He who promises Himself to Israel.
Promises need time. And God’s times are not our own. In the Bible, as in our lives, sometimes it seems like God has forgotten us. Or rather, we forget the promises that God has made to us.
When we feel most sterile and hopeless, like Elizabeth, God comes to us in an extraordinary way and fulfills His promise. Elizabeth represents humanity, incapable of bearing fruit, that understands that it can no longer depend on its own strength. Elizabeth cannot conceive, and so she is unable to imagine a future, like in our own time when children have forgotten the promises and no longer find reasons to go on living.
It is even more saddening when this absence of hope seeps into the Church. There is, perhaps, nothing more dramatic than a faith without hope, like the faith of Zechariah, who, despite finding himself in the presence of the sacred as a priest of the Temple, lives out his religiosity like an empty ritual.
Zechariah’s heart is empty. The Word no longer speaks to him. He no longer believes in God’s promises for he has surrendered his hope. Life will go on only until it is sucked into the void of nothingness that awaits it. Zechariah hears the Word, but that word no longer says anything to his life.
Zechariah is called to reflect; and that requires understanding, which in turn requires silence. Zechariah will be mute so that he does not lose himself in his words and learns to hear the promises again. Just as Elizabeth will bear a son despite her age and her sterility, Zechariah, despite being mute, will be the father of he who is the Voice. God always presents Himself in the midst of paradoxes. The human paradox illuminates the presence and work of God even more significantly.
And just as Zechariah is invited to keep silent in order to meditate, later he will be called to praise by recounting his experience of God. Silence and praise, preserve and announce; these are the tensions that our lives are called to pass between. Even the life of John the Baptist will be a quest to learn to live in this tension. John lives in the desert and yet, he preaches. The place of silence becomes the space of the word. The place of isolation becomes the place of relationship.
There is a reversal of history: the life that at first seemed useless, incapable of bearing fruit and without a future, now becomes memory and prophecy. Zechariah’s tongue loosens in order to recount the works of God in his life and his new words have a new fullness, a new purpose and value. His words are not useless or casual. They even become a prophecy: John is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. God has not forgotten. John is the future. Thus we discover that God was always present with us and had never forgotten.
The words of Zechariah also become a blessing. From that blessing, Zechariah only sees the sprout and yet, rather than letting himself be taken with fear for the future of that blessing that is born, Zechariah roots himself in the certainty that the Lord will always be with them.
We often transform our lives into a time of anxiety and lament, we worry for what is to come and we leave no room for the possibilities that are present now. Zechariah finds in his son, the sign of God’s blessing, a sign that perhaps we give up hope of finding far too easily.
Questions for personal reflection:
How faithful are you to the promises you make to yourself and to others?
What signs of blessing do you discover in your life?
A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke 1:57-66,80
When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.” But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbours and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.