HOMILY for 19 December
We saw yesterday that Jesus was born of the surviving branch, the nezer in Hebrew, of David’s royal stock. And so, he was called a Nazarene as the prophets foretold. But today’s readings draw our attention, not to a Nazarene but a Nazirite, from the Hebrew word nazir, meaning ‘consecrated’ or ‘set apart’. And the one who follows in Samson’s footsteps as a Nazirite is St John, the Baptizer.
St Luke wants us to understand that John is from an impeccable priestly lineage; both his parents are from the priestly tribes of Aaron and Levi. So, his ancestry alone would set him apart for the Lord’s service as a priest. When a priest ministered in the Sanctuary, such as Zechariah was doing, he had to abstain from wine and strong drink. But the Nazirite did so for the duration of his vow, and we’re told that St John is to abstain for the whole of his life. So, there is a very strong sense of John being consecrated for priestly service not just by blood but by oath; ministering not just for short durations of service but for his entire life. John is always serving in the Lord’s presence.
And, in an emphasis typical of St Luke, he adds that John “will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Lk 1:15b). This, and the angel’s description of John’s role as one of turning hearts, indicate that John is not just a priest but also a prophet. For the prophets are those who have a particular intimacy with God, who are in friendship with him, and so, are familiar with God’s ways, and can see far and deeply into God’s activity in the world. Again, this stresses that John is always in God’s presence, continually serving him.
Hence, when Jesus draws near, even in the womb, St John leaps for joy and recognizes his presence. And, again, when Jesus comes down to the Jordan, St John sees immediately that it is the Lord who approaches him. Such sensitivity to the divine comes from his being constantly in God’s service; set apart to be ready for when the Lord comes. Hence he is such a central figure for Advent as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming. However, it seems to me that John is also a reminder of who we are as Christians, not just at Advent but always.
For last Sunday we heard Jesus say in the Gospel: “He who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John]” (Mt 11:11). How? Because of the grace of Christ. So, as John the Baptist was set apart for God, so you and I have been consecrated to Christ through baptism; we belong to Jesus and are held in his love. As John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, so were we from the womb of our Mother, the Church, that is, the baptismal font. Hence baptism makes us friends of God like the prophets, and also priests of God. But, like John,we’re not just called to serve God in certain times in the Temple and Liturgy, but constantly and everywhere. Thus we’re called recognize and serve Christ our God in the poor and needy, in those who mourn, and hunger for justice, in those who long for mercy and compassion.
Like John, such prophetic familiarity and priestly service attunes us to God’s presence among us. Thus, grace moves us to leap for joy when Christ comes to us – not hidden in the Virgin Mother’s womb, but hidden under the sacramental forms of bread and wine here in the Eucharist. God’s Spirit, the gift of faith in us, has prepared us for his coming. For Jesus the Nazarene is here with us now, the living Branch who brings new life and hope; he’s with us now to comfort us and brighten our darkness. So today’s Communion antiphon says: “The Dawn from on high will visit us, guiding our feet in the way of peace”.