07 December 2008

Advent 4: The Birth of John the Forerunner

Today the Church celebrates the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which marks (in the Syriac tradition) the Birth of our Lord's Forerunner - John. Today's Office of Readings features a reading on the Forerunner, taken from Sermon 293 of Augustine of Hippo.


From a Sermon of Augustine of Hippo.

The Church observes the birth of John as in a holy event. We do not celebrate the birth of any of the other fathers, but we do celebrate the birthdays of both both John and Christ. This point cannot be passed over silently. Perhaps I may not be able to explain it in the way that such an important matter deserves, but it is still worth thinking about it a little more deeply and fruitfully than usual.

John was born of an old, barren woman; Christ was born of a youthful virgin. The news of John’s impending birth was met with incredulity, and his father is dumb-struck; Christ’s birth was believed, and he was conceived by faith.

Such is the topic, as I have presented it, for our discussion and study. I have introduced these points even if we are not capable of 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 Holy Spirit, the One who speaks in you even when I am not here. (It is the Spirit whom you contemplate with devotion, 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. Our Lord indicates as much when he says, “The law and the prophets were until John.” Thus, John 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, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him (with his eyes). These are divine matters, and exceed the measure of human frailty. Eventually, he is born, he receives a name, and his father’s tongue is loosed.

Zechariah is struck dumb and loses his voice, until John, the Lord’s forerunner, is born and releases his voice for him. What does Zechariah’s silence mean? The silence of Zechariah is nothing but the age of prophecy laying hidden – obscured, as it were – and concealed before the preaching of Christ. At John’s arrival his voice is released, and it becomes clear when the one who was being prophesied is about to come. The releasing of Zechariah’s voice at John’s birth 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 Zechariah’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 was a voice that lasted only for a time.

Christ, who is the Word from before all time, is eternal.


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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