The circumstances described in today’s Gospel are the culmination of a remarkable pregnancy. In roughly nine months, Zechariah and Elizabeth, an aging, pious couple, have seen their lives transform from ones of quiet simplicity to mysterious notoriety. First Zechariah’s visitation of an angel in the temple; his sudden muteness; then Elizabeth’s medically marvelous conception; and finally her divinely inspired reunion with her cousin Mary. In today’s reading, the pregnancy ends as miraculously as it began, with an atypical naming ceremony and Zechariah’s suddenly restored speech. Luke, the writer of this account, seems to say “Pay attention! This child is something special.”
Apparently, the events surrounding John the Baptist’s birth suggested the same message to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s neighbors. The gossip mill flew as “all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea.” This was evidently big news among the rural population, and Luke highlights the community‘s reaction. Elizabeth’s “neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.” They joined the family for the circumcision, were frightened by Zechariah’s sudden healing, and “took these things to heart.”
These references to the community, woven throughout the story, remind us that the nativity is much more than a family drama. The baby John was certainly an answered prayer for his barren mother, but moreover, he was a gift to the entire Jewish people, pointing them toward repentance. These same neighbors who rejoiced at his birth would later get the answer to their question of “What, then, will this child be?”; he would baptize them, preach to them, and teach them that “anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11). Ultimately he would face imprisonment and beheading for the message he faithfully delivered to this community.
Elizabeth and Zechariah were right to thank God for the private miracle of having the son for whom they had longed—but if they hadn’t shared the experience with others, they would have missed half the blessing. Just like this family, each of us has private experiences with God. We see prayers answered, needs generously met, or divine comfort administered at moments when we most need it. We experience sacramental miracles that strengthen our faith. God’s gifts, as we see in this Gospel reading, are both personal and communal. God knows our desires even more intimately than we do, and delights in blessing us. At the same time, God also uses these gifts in the lives of those around us.
Take a moment to consider the blessings, gifts, or answered prayers you have received from God. What spiritual experiences have stirred your faith, like Zechariah and Elizabeth? Thank God for these, and ask how you might share them with your community.
- Would others benefit from hearing your story of how God remained close to you in a difficult time?
- Who would like to share the joy of an answered prayer you might be bashful of “bragging” about?
- What talents, relationships, or resources given to you by God could you share?