This is a homily for the feast of Eve of the Nativity of John the Baptist.
“The Day of ___” is a stock phrase in ancient literature referring to a great victory. The common biblical phrase “The Day of the Lord,” therefore, is a reference to God’s victory. In the Old Testament this was generally anticipated as the arrival of the Messiah. Through the eyes of the New Testament we can see two “days of the Lord” – Jesus’ 1st and 2nd advents. Both times God does big powerful things: the first advent defeats the power of sin, and the second will defeat the power of death. At least for the 1st advent, God made sure there was someone standing ready to warn the world…
the Herald before the Messiah
Malachi 4:5 told the Israelites that this forerunner would be Elijah. In the book of Sirach, chapters 44-50 area series of reflections on various Old Testament heroes, summing up much the Old Testament’s information and teaching. 48:1-11 addresses Elijah. It points out that he was unique among the prophets in that he actually succeeded in destroying all the idols and in restoring faith and worship of God for a little while. None of the other prophets exercised quite that much influence in their times. Also, Elijah’s bodily ascension into heaven came to be considered a guarantee to the Jewish people that he would return. If he hadn’t died, after all, then he was still alive, and able to return, to continue his work of preparing people for the arrival of their Messiah.
But think about it – a messenger can’t come if the message is already known. If God’s people had constant Facebook updates then there’d be no need for Elijah’s job. That’s the prophet’s job, after all, to deliver words from God to keep the people appraised of His will. So first, before Elijah could come back, the buzz had to die down, the voices silenced, the waters calmed.
Silence will fall
First to go was the Davidic royal house. After the Babylonian captivity there were no more kings from David’s line. Sure, the Jews had periods of time of home rule, or semi-autonomy, but they never had their own kings according to David’s line anymore. And, just to be sure, by the time we arrive at the gospel of Luke’s narrative in chapter 1, King Herod of Judah isn’t even a Jew!
Second to go were the prophets. In 1 Maccabees 9:27 we read that prophets had ceased to appear! You may have heard of the “400 years of silence” between Malachi and John the Baptist;” that’s basically what this was.
Finally the priesthood had to be silenced. This is trickier to identify. The Temple was rebuilt after the exile, desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, fixed up by the Hasmoneans, and expanded under King Herod. The priestly sacrifices and the Law-prescribed worship didn’t really stop for long. Sure, rampant corruption can be identified in the ranks of the priesthood, but many of them were still carrying out their duties faithfully. But finally even they are silenced. How?
the silenced priest
One day, many believe it was the Day of Atonement, a priest named Zechariah was performing his duties in the Temple, praying for the atonement of Israel’s sins. As he waves incense before the altar, he sees an archangel! Now the fact that an angel is there is not surprising; we know from other places in Scripture that angels are constantly ministering before God’s throne, and back then the Temple was still associated with that spiritual place. What was surprising was the fact that Zechariah could actually see it! Perhaps it was because he was a particularly righteous man, blameless among his fellow Jews.
Whateverso, the archangel Gabriel announces to him that his prayer is answered – atonement for Israel is finally coming! And he and his barren wife, Elizabeth, will have a son to be named John, who will go in the spirit and power of Elijah. Zechariah asks for a sign of proof and is answered with muteness: he cannot speak again until his son is born. So Zechariah goes back outside the Temple where a crowd is waiting to receive God’s blessing from him, as was customary. But no blessing came, because God’s priest was silenced.
The kings were removed from their thrones, the prophets no more appeared in the land, and even now the priesthood was overshadowed with a mute darkness. The calm before the storm has begun.
the calm before the storm
Looking ahead, beyond this passage, we don’t typically think of Jesus being born to a young virgin in an ox’s stall as much of a storm. The incarnation in the physical world was very humble and subtle indeed. But have no doubt, this was a bombshell in the spiritual world. Before Jesus was even born, John the Baptist was prophesying.
Shortly after Mary received the Holy Spirit and conceived Jesus, she visited Elizabeth, then three months pregnant. As Mary steps into the room and greets her cousin, little pre-natal John leaps in the womb! And Elizabeth exclaims “blessed are you among women, and blessed be the fruit of your womb” because she understands John’s prophetic little leap, already pointing to the Messiah who was already becoming incarnate in this world. The silence is ending; the storm is breaking. Kings, prophets, and priests were silenced, but now the King of kings, the Prophet greater than Moses, the Eternal High Priest was stepping in to take their place.