Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

For the First Nocturn

The First Reading
(from the Gospel of St. Luke 1:57-66)
ELISABETH'S full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed. and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Jud├Ža. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.

The Second Reading
(from Calvin's Commentaries The Harmony of the Gospels)
 The amount of this narrative is, that the birth of John was distinguished by various miracles, which gave reason to expect, that something great and remarkable would appear in the child himself at a future period. For the Lord determined to confer upon him from the womb remarkable tokens, that he might not afterwards come forward, as an obscure and unknown person, from the crowd, to discharge the office of a Prophet. First Luke relates, that Mary remained about three months with her cousin, — or, in other words, till the birth of the child: for it is probable that she had no other reason for staying so long, but to enjoy the exhibition of divine grace, which had been suggested to her by the angel for the confirmation of her faith.

58. And her neighbors and relatives heard It may admit of doubt, whether the wonderful kindness of God was estimated by those persons from the simple fact of her being blessed with a child, or whether they had previously heard that an angel appeared to Zacharias, and promised to him a son. This was certainly no ordinary divine favor, that, out of the course of nature, a barren woman at a very advanced age had brought forth a child. It is possible that, on this ground alone, they magnified the divine goodness. On the eighth day, from a sense of duty or from courtesy, as is customary on such occasions, some people assemble; but God takes occasion from it to make them witnesses and spectators of his power and glory. There can be no doubt but the extraordinary birth brought a greater crowd. They had reckoned it a prodigy to see an old and barren woman suddenly become pregnant; and now that the child is born, their astonishment is renewed and increased. We infer from the words of Luke that, though they circumcised their children at home, they were not wont to do so without collecting a numerous assembly: and with good reason, for it was a common sacrament of the church, and it was not proper to administer it in a secret or private manner.

59. And they called him Zacharias, by the name of his father We know that names were originally given to men, either from some occurrence, or even by prophetic inspiration, to point out some secret work of God. After a long period, when there was such a profusion of names, that it became inconvenient to form new ones every day, people satisfied themselves with the old and received names, and called their children by the names of their ancestors. Thus before the father of John, there were many called Zacharias, and perhaps they were the descendants of the “son of Barachias,” (Matthew 23:35.) Use and wont, we are aware, is generally taken for law, and so these persons contended that the prevailing custom should be observed as to the name of the child. Though we must not imagine that there is any sacredness in names, yet no judicious person will deny that, in this matter, believers ought to make a godly and profitable selection. They ought to give their children such names as may serve to instruct and admonish them, and consequently to take the names of holy fathers — for the purpose of exciting their children to imitate them — rather than adopt those of ungodly persons.

60. And his mother answering said It is uncertain if Elisabeth spoke this by inspiration. But when Zacharias saw the punishment inflicted on him for being too slow in believing, he probably informed his wife by writing what the angel had enjoined respecting the name, (ver. 13,) otherwise he would not have obeyed the command of God. Why this name was given to the Baptist by divine authority, I have already explained. The relatives, though unacquainted with the reason, are affected by the strangeness of the occurrence, particularly as they conjecture it did not take place without design.

64. And his mouth was instantly opened God puts honor on the birth of his prophet by restoring speech to his father: for there can be no doubt that this benefit was delayed till that day with the express object and design of fixing the eyes of men upon John. Zacharias spake, blessing God He did so, not only for the purpose of testifying his gratitude, but to inform his relatives and neighbors, that this punishment had been inflicted on him, because he had been too slow to believe: for he was not ashamed to unite with his own dishonor the praises of the divine glory. Thus it became universally known, that the birth of the child was not an accidental or ordinary event, but had been promised by an announcement from heaven. [Note:“Mais selon la promesse expresse de Dieu, qui avoit este apportee et revelee par l'ange.” — “But according to the express promise of God, which had been brought and revealed by the angel.”]

65. And fear fell upon all This fear mentioned by Luke proceeded from a feeling of the divine power: for the works of God ought to be contemplated by us with such reverence as to affect our minds with seriousness. [Note:“Que nous en soyons touchez et esmeus a bon escient.” — “That we may be touched and moved by them in good earnest.”] God does not amuse us with his miracles, but arouses the senses of men, which he perceives to be in a dormant state. [Note:“Dieu en faisant miracles ne se joue point pour nous servir de passe- temps, mais reveille nos sens, lesquels il voit estre abrutis et en dormis.” — “God, in working miracles, does not amuse himself to supply us with pastime, but arouses our senses, which he sees to be stupified and asleep.”]

Luke says also that the report of those things was circulated in all the mountainous district of Judea And yet many derived no advantage from the temporary impression of the power of God: for, when John began to exercise his office as an instructor, there were few that remembered what wonders had attended his birth. It was not merely, however, for the sake of those who heard them, that God determined to spread abroad the report of those events, but to establish, in all ages, the certainty of the miracle, which was then universally known. Meanwhile, a general mirror of human ingratitude is here placed before our eyes: for, while trifling and frivolous occurrences remain firmly in our minds, those which ought to produce a constant recollection of divine favors immediately fade and disappear.

Luke does not speak of stupid men, or actual despisers of God: for he says that they put them in their heart: that is, they applied eagerly to the consideration of them. Some probably continued to remember, but the greater part rapidly shook off the fear which they had experienced. It deserves our notice that they were far from mistaking the design, when they interpreted the miracles which they saw as relating to the future excellence of the child: for such, we have said, was the design of God, that John should afterwards come forth with the highest reputation. And the hand of the Lord was with him The meaning is, that the grace of God was strikingly visible in many respects, and showed manifestly that he was not an ordinary person. It is a figurative mode of expression, and denotes that the power of God was as fully manifested as if his hand had been visibly seen, so that all readily acknowledged the presence of God.

The Third Reading
(from a Sermon by St. Bede the Venerable)
THE Angel appeared to Zacharias in the sanctuary of the temple at the right side of the altar of incense.  
Which same was fitting, thus he appeared in the sanctuary because he came to proclaim sacrifice ; and at the right side thereof, to indicate how joyous was the honor about to be bestowed on mankind by the heavenly gift.  The right side is the side of honor, and therefore words indicating a position at the right hand are often used to signify an external good, and by the same token, to be at the left side doth sometimes signify only present good.  
As for example where to Book of Proverbs singeth thus in praise of wisdom: "Length of her days is in her right hand, and in her left hand riches and honor."
 First of all the Angel comforteth the trembling Zacharias.  Fear not, saith he.  For just as it is natural for human frailty to fear spiritual manifestations, so it is natural for Angels to comfort with good words the mortals that be in this wise fearful.  
Contrariwise, when the devil perceiveth that his audacious manifestations do frighten, he proceedeth to frighten as much as he can, and that with an increasing fearsomeness.  There is no better way to overcome his workings than by a courageous faith.
NEXT, the angel saith that the prayer of Zacharias was heard, and then straightway promiseth that the wife of Zacharias should bear a child.  
We are not to understand that he had been praying for the birth of a son whilst he was offering the sacrifice according to the liturgy of that time, for we are told that he had given up hope of a son, and no one prayeth for that which he hath no hope of obtaining.  
Yea, so hopeless was he of ever having children of his own, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both now well stricken in years, that he did not even believe the Angel's promise.  
Therefore the words of the Angel: "Thy prayer is heard", refer to the redemption of the people, for which Zacharias had prayed in the pleading of the sacrifice.  
And the words "Thy wife shall bear a son" do shew forth the manner of that redemption, for he addeth that the son of Zacharias shall go before the Redeemer as a herald, to make ready his way amongst the people.  
Thus, in this saying that the prayer of supplication offered by Zacharias was heard of God, the Angel sheweth in what manner the people can be brought to salvation and perfection ; namely, by repentance at the preaching of John, whereby they are to be led to faith in Christ.
BUT Zacharias hesitateth because of the sublime things which have been promised.  Wherefore he asketh for a sign, that he may believe, albeit the coming of the Angel and his words of promise ought to have been a sufficient sign.  Hence he was stricken dumb as a just penalty for his slowness of belief : to be dumb was both a sign to stir him up to the faith which he sought, and the penance which he deserved for his unbelief.  
We may thus understand that if a man of earth had promised such things, it would be lawful to seek for a sign, but that when an Angel is sent from heaven to give God's promise, there should have been no occasion for doubt.  
And yet the Angel giveth the desired sign, so that he who spake from disbelief may learn from silence to believe.  
Note that the Angel saith "I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God, and am sent to speak unto thee these glad tidings."  Doubtless when Angels come to us they fulfill this active and outward ministry in such a way that yet do always remain in God's presence by contemplation.  Wherefore, they stand in his presence even though they be sent from him on a mission.  An Angel is a created spirit, and therefore hath many limitations.  But God hath no limitations, and is everywhere.  Thus when he sendeth his Angels from his presence, they yet do stand therein, for whithersoever they go on a mission, they go in him.

For the Second Nocturn

Fourth Reading
(from the Gospel of St. Luke 1:67-79)
And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Fifth Reading
(from fragments of a commentary by St. Cyril of Alexandria)
1:69. He hath raised up a horn of salvation for us. 2
The word horn is used not only for power, but also for royalty. But Christ, Who is the Saviour that hath risen for us from the family and race of David, is both: for He is the King of kings, and the invincible power of the Father.
1:72. To perform mercy.
Christ is mercy and justice: for we have obtained mercy through Him, and been justified, having washed away the stains of wickedness through faith that is in Him.
1:73. The oath which He sware to our father Abraham,
But let no one accustom himself to swear from hearing that God sware unto Abraham. For just as anger, when spoken of |5 God, is not anger, nor implies passion, but signifies power exercised in punishment, or some similar motion; so neither is an oath an act of swearing. For God does not swear, but indicates the certainty of the event,----that that which He says will necessarily come to pass. For God's oath is His own word, fully persuading those that hear, and giving each one the conviction that what He has promised and said will certainly come to pass.
1:76. And thou, child, shalt be called Prophet of the Highest.
Observe, I pray, this also, that Christ is the Highest, Whose forerunner John was both in his birth, and in his preaching. What remains, then, for those to say, who lessen 3 His divinity? And why will they not understand, that when Zacharias said, "And thou shalt be called Prophet of the Highest," he meant thereby "of God," of Whom also were the rest of the prophets.
1:79. To give light to them that sit in darkness, and the shadow of death.
For those under the law, and dwelling in Judea, the Baptist was, as it were, a lamp, preceding Christ: and God so spake before of him; "I have prepared a lamp for My Christ." And the law also typified him in the lamp, which in the first tabernacle it commanded should be ever kept alight. But the Jews, after being for a short time pleased with him, flocking to his baptism, and admiring his mode of life, quickly made him sleep in death, doing their best to quench the ever-burning lamp. For this reason the Saviour also spake concerning him; "He was a burning and shining lamp, and ye were willing a little to rejoice for a season in his light." |6
1:79. To guide our feet into the way of peace.
For the world, indeed, was wandering in error, serving the creation in the place of the Creator, and was darkened over by the blackness of ignorance, and a night, as it were, that had fallen upon the minds of all, permitted them not to see Him, Who both by nature and truly is God. But the Lord of all rose for the Israelites, like a light and a sun.

Sixth Reading
(from a Sermon by St. Augustine)
The Church observes the birth of John as in some way sacred; and you will not find any other of the great men of old whose birth we celebrate officially. We celebrate John’s, as we celebrate Christ’s. This point cannot be passed over in silence, and if I may not perhaps be able to explain it in the way that such an important matter deserves, it is still worth thinking about it a little more deeply and fruitfully than usual.
John is born of an old woman who is barren; Christ is born of a young woman who is a virgin. That John will be born is not believed, and his father is struck dumb; that Christ will be born is believed, and he is conceived by faith.
I have proposed some matters for inquiry, and listed in advance some things that need to be discussed. I have introduced these points even if we are not up to examining all the twists and turns of such a great mystery, either for lack of capacity or for lack of time. You will be taught much better by the one who speaks in you even when I am not here; the one about whom you think loving thoughts, the one whom you have taken into your hearts and whose temple you have become.
John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. That he is somehow or other a boundary is something that the Lord himself indicates when he says, The Law and the prophets were until John. So he represents the old and heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb. You will remember that, before he was born, at Mary’s arrival he leapt in his mother’s womb. Already he had been marked out there, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him. These are divine matters, and exceed the measure of human frailty. Finally, he is born, he receives a name, and his father’s tongue is loosed.
Zachary is struck dumb and loses his voice, until John, the Lord’s forerunner, is born and releases his voice for him. What does Zachary’s silence mean, but that prophecy was obscure and, before the proclamation of Christ, somehow concealed and shut up? It is released and opened up by his arrival, it becomes clear when the one who was being prophesied is about to come. The releasing of Zachary’s voice at the birth of John has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. If John were meant to proclaim himself, he would not be opening Zachary’s mouth. The tongue is released because a voice is being born – for when John was already heralding the Lord, he was asked, Who are you and he replied I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
John is the voice, but the Lord in the beginning was the Word. John is a voice for a time, but Christ is the eternal Word from the beginning.

For the Third Nocturn

The Seventh Reading
(from the Gospel of St. Luke 1:80)
And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.

The Eighth Reading
(Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Gospel Luke)
 The Birth of John the Baptist.

Lastly, It is said, The hand of the Lord was with him; that is, he was taken under the special protection of the Almighty, from his birth, as one designed for something great and considerable, and there were many instances of it. It appeared likewise that the Spirit was at work upon his soul very early. As soon as he began to speak or go, you might perceive something in him very extraordinary. Note, God has ways of operating upon children in their infancy, which we cannot account for. God never made a soul but he knew how to sanctify it.

The Ninth Reading
(from the annotated Book of Common Prayer by John Henry Blunt)
This festival is in the Comes of St. Jerome, as also another commemorating the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, but the date is not indicated in either case. Mabillon says that the festival of this day was in the Carthaginian Calendar before A.d. 484; and it is mentioned [circ. A.D. 400] by Maximus, Bp. of Turin, as also by St. Augustine, in several Homilies. In the Eastern Church it is kept on January 7th, the day after the holy Theophany; and the festival of the Decollation is also fixed, as in the Latin Church and our own, for August 29th. The day on which our principal Festival of St. John the Baptist is kept has been supposed to be connected with his words, "He must increase, but I must decrease;" the days of the Bridegroom are growing longer, but those of the friend of the Bridegroom are beginning to wane. So St. Augustine says [Horn. 287], "John was born to-day, and from to-day the days decrease; Christ was born on the eighth of the kalends of January, and from that day the days increase." But the 24th of June is also the proximate day of the Baptist's birth, since he was six months older than our Lord.
Although the martyrdom of St John Baptist is one of the four recorded in Holy Scripture (the other three being those of the Holy Innocents, St. Stephen, and St. James), yet the present festival, which commemorates his Nativity, appears to be the more ancient of the two dedicated to his name, and the one more generally observed. So we may judge from the Sermons both of Maximus and St. Augustine, each of whom accounts for the custom of observing the Birth and not the Martyrdom of the Precursor of our Lord as if no other festival in his honour had yet been established. "The prophets who had gone before were first born, and at a later day prophesied, but St. John Baptist heralded the Incarnation of our Lord when His Virgin Mother came to visit Elizabeth, and both the Precursor and the Holy Child were yet unborn."
The miraculous birth of St. John the Baptist, and all that we know of his subsequent history, is told us in the opening chapters of the four Gospels, in the 11th of St. Matthew, and the 9th of St. Luke. By comparing our Lord's words in Matt. xi. 14, those of the angel in Luke i. 16,17, of Zacharias in Luke ii. 76, and those of St. John himself in announcing his mission, with preceding prophecies, we see that the prophets had spoken of him more than seven hundred years before he was born, and that the very last words of the Old Testament, written about four hundred years previously, were concerning him. And, comparatively little as is said about St. John in Holy Scripture, what is said shows how important his office was, and illustrates the words of our Lord, that among all previously born of women, none was ever greater than John the Baptist.
He appears to have spent his childhood, at least, with our Blessed Lord and His mother, and it is natural to suppose that his parents lived but a few years after his birth. But when the time for his ministry came, he adopted the ancient prophetic mode of life; such as is indicated in the case of Elijah the Tishbite, who is said [2 Kings i. 8] to have been "an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins." As a prophet, and the greatest of all,—the last prophet of the old dispensation, and the first of the new,—he assailed the vices of the generation in which our Lord came, as Elijah himself had assailed those of Ahab and the Israel of that day; and so doing he brought many to repentance, and initiated a new moral life by that ordinance of Baptism with which the dispensation of Sinai ended, and that of Calvary began. And when by the power of his preaching he had prepared the hearts of the people to receive Christ as a blessing, and not as one "come to smite the earth with a curse" [Mal. iv. 6], the other part of his office was brought into exercise, that of baptizing our Lord, and witnessing to the descent of the Holy Spirit on His human nature.

Powerful as the effect of St. John the Baptist's ministrations evidently was, we have very little information given us about it. He proclaimed the coming of Christ, rebuked all classes of the people for their sins, showed them the way to turn from them, and baptized with a Baptism of water which foreshadowed the Baptism with the Holy Ghost as well as water. All people seem to have come readily to him, for the "offence of the Cross" had not yet begun, and the prophet who attracted was no "carpenter's son," but "a prophet indeed," the son of a man well known among them, a priest of the regular succession of Aaron, prophesying as Elijah, Isaiah, or Ezekiel, with the outward appearance and habit of a " man sent from God," and telling of that which they longed for, the near approach of their Messiah. This is all we learn of the ministry of the Baptist from Holy Scripture, and tradition has added little or nothing more. His martyrdom appears to have taken place very early in our Lord's ministry, and when St. John himself was only about thirty years of age; and since his work was done, we may see in it the manner in which the course of even the evil of this world is so regulated, that it ministered by a quick death to the rapid removal of a saint from the Church on earth to the Church in Heaven when the time of his reward was come.

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