‘Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John’
Reflections on the Nativity Gospels, #9
One of the most esteemed icons in the Orthodox Church depicts Christ in his majesty as Pantocrator (ruler of the universe), and flanked by the Mother of God and John the Baptist, both of whom have their hands raised in supplication (Deisis) on behalf of humanity.
We would do well to have this inspiring vision in mind when considering Christ’s nativity as told in the Gospel of St. Luke. Luke depicts John and Mary in their divinely ordained roles at the very juncture between the old covenant of Israel and the new covenant of the Church. The story, like the icon, shows the continuity of God’s plan and the newness of His revelation in Christ.
Let’s begin, as Luke does, with the miraculous conception of John to Zachariah and Elizabeth, an elderly and barren couple. It is fitting that the annunciation of the coming birth by the archangel Gabriel to the priest Zachariah takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem, as Zachariah righteously meets the duties long sanctified by Israel’s law and tradition. He and his wife are the finest representatives of the piety of Israel, ‘living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord’ (Luke 1:6).
The Archangel Gabriel heralds not only John’s birth and name, but his destiny as well, a role that will lead many to rejoice. Filled with the Holy Spirit,
He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God (Luke 1:16)
Here we enter into the heart of John’s role in taking God’s plan forward in an astounding direction. In reporting the angel’s words, Luke is telling us that John shall carry out the divinely inspired prediction made by the last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi.
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me (Malachi 3:1)
John will accomplish this, Gabriel tells us, with the spirit and power of the Elijah, one of Israel’s greatest prophets and miracle workers.
With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (Luke 1:17).
Luke’s infancy narrative reveals John the Baptist as designated to serve as the prophet to herald the Messiah. Indeed, his role was made clear even in his mother’s womb, when Elizabeth his mother felt the babe leap for joy when she met with Mary pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:44).
The circumstances of John’s origins belong to the period of Old Testamental Israel, to its stories about miraculous births, and its prophets. But John himself shares in the messianic joy that surrounds the coming of Jesus. He rightfully belongs at the Lord’s side, interceding for us as our icon depicts.