The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Monday, June 27, 2005


Today, in the octave of his feast day, we continue to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist, one of my favourite and surely one of the most colourful characters in the Bible. He is a key player in that historical period when the Old Testament meets the New. The Old Testament leaves shadows of two figures dancing on the wall of the future, both of which emerge as real people in the opening movements of the New Testament. They are intimately linked through prophecy and through the Gospel narratives.

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.

A baby had been born whose footsteps in the sands of history were to be erased by one who was to follow him. St. John the Baptist was a man whose life may be considered to have been eclipsed by that of Jesus Christ, the very presence on earth of whom John was to proclaim.

But that is the way humans look upon their world and in the realm of Almighty God, things work very differently. There, the life of John, and the nativity of John, are infused with the glorious light of the Son of God. Through the brilliant crystal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we can see the glory of God reflecting brightly off the Prophet of the Highest, illuminating rather than erasing his footsteps.

Come, let us look into that crystal for a while, praying earnestly that God will aid our vision.

In Chapter 1, verses 5-20, St. Luke gives us some important information about the birth of this child, or more specifically about his remarkable, but totally human, conception.

Zaccharias and his wife, Elisabeth, both descendants of Aaron, resided in one of the priestly cities of the hill country of Judea. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, they were advanced in years and childless.

To a Jewish couple, childlessness was a most tragic state, one which signified to all God’s displeasure at them. In spite of this, or perhaps more because of it, their thoughts had become focused on the heavenly rather than on the earthly. V.6 tells us, And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.

The time comes for Zaccahrias to take his turn of duty in the temple. He has a specific task. With two assistants, one bearing incense in a censer, the other carrying a vessel containing live coals, he passes slowly and reverently from the view of the worshippers, entering the holiest, inner sanctum where none but the Levites may tread. The assistants do what they must with the incense and coals and retire, leaving Zaccharias to perform alone his sacred duties.

And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing at the right side of the altar of incense. The angel informs the old man that he and his wife will have a son, who they are to name John.

Zaccharias is astounded. He asks the angel, who identifies himself as non other than Gabriel, for a sign that what he has heard is really the truth. Gabriel promptly grants his request, telling Zaccharias that he will be unable to speak again until the things come to pass and his son is born.

Now it is usual to think of this as punishment, because that is how we would act and of course, because Gabriel said, Because thou believest not my words. But look through that crystal and you see the Almighty at work in His own way. Zaccharias asked for a sign and he received it, a sign of supernatural origin and magnitude, designed not to punish but to assist his flickering faith. For it was during that period of enforced silence, his mind surely fixed mightily upon God that, in the mind of the man, words inspired by God coalesced into what we now know as the Benedictus.

Never feel sorry for old Zaccharias. He was blessed and he knew it. Nine months to spend in silence with his God, nine months in which to wonder at the name divinely chosen for his son, John, which means The Grace of Jehovah, or perhaps we would say today, God is gracious.

And when it was over, there, in the presence of the new baby, made ready for his circumcision, Zaccharias, his speech restored, proclaimed the lovely Benedictus, a canticle both prophetic in nature and at the same time setting the seal on the Old Testament. So God’s blessing upon Zaccharias lives on today, blessing us each time we pray matins.

It is worth noting that, of what are sometimes called the four Gospel Psalms, three were delivered in the house of Zaccharias and Elisabeth in the hill country of Judea. Perhaps all were first heard in the very same room where John was born.

Each of these three canticles shines the light of God on St. John, but the Gospels are about Jesus Christ and that crystal focuses the glory even more directly upon the Word made flesh.

Please close your eyes for a moment and try to picture the room in that house in the hills. Elisabeth, advanced both in years and in her wondrous pregnancy is receiving an unexpected visitor. It is her much younger cousin, Mary, who is newly, but even more wondrously pregnant. The two women sit on simple wooden furniture in the quiet coolness of the room. The room is filled with the Holy Spirit, who touches John in Elisabeth’s womb and who causes to spill from her lips a flow of beautiful Hebraic poetry.

Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For, lo, as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears,
The babe leaped in my womb for joy.
And blessed is she that believed,
For there shall be a fulfillment of the things
which have been spoken to her from the Lord. Luke 1, 42-45

The first Gospel Psalm, full of knowing, full of humility, full of acknowledgement that she, Elisabeth, was in the presence of something unimaginable.

The Spirit then moves Mary, the sixteen year old virgin who is carrying the Son of God in her womb, to an even more beautiful response, giving us the second Gospel Psalm, the Magnificat:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

So begins the Holy Mother’s canticle of praise and awe.

Now it is true that St. John is not mentioned directly by Mary in the Magnificat, but he is part and parcel of the content. As it is written in Luke 1, 54 and 55, part of the Magnificat,

He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.
And as Isaiah the prophet foretold of John,

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

It was on such prophesies that the mind of Zaccharias must have dwelt in his prolonged silence, contemplating them and incorporating them into his canticle:

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.

But the Benedictus, as befits a Gospel Psalm, is much less about John than it is about Jesus. The canticle begins with Jesus :

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel:
For he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us
In the house of his servant David.

And the canticle ends with Jesus,

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.

The crystal of the Gospel shows us that it is Jesus who gives meaning to the life of John the Baptist.

It is Jesus who sets indelibly and then illuminates John’s footsteps in the sands of history.

It is Jesus who shows John the Baptist to be the great saint that he is, one who singlemindedly fulfills his unique role in the meeting between the Old Covenant and the New.

What then of the fourth Gospel Psalm? In a sense, it brings to full bloom the flowers budding in the first three. In it, through that crystal, we can see St. John the Baptist again, this time as a man with the same need that all mankind shares.

For the fourth Gospel Psalm sings of Jesus our Saviour, the salvation of the world. It is sung by a second old man, expectant with another promise from God, that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

Cradling the infant Jesus in his arms, old Simeon sighs his relief :

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.

Glory be to God the Father, who hath created us.
Glory be to God the Son, who hath redeemed us.
Glory be to God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth us.
Blessed be the Holy and undivided Trinity, now and for evermore. Amen.

Peter Jardine+
Trinity V/Commemoration of John the Baptist, 2005