Wednesday, December 02, 2015

In the Picture: the relatives of John the Baptist

The Birth of John the Baptist
Luca Signorelli 1445-1523
Read: Luke 57-80
 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
   for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
   in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
   and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
   to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
   before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. 

This scene, by the Italian Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli probably looked like a perfectly ordinary painting of a birth to those who first saw it. Friends and family have gathered for a look at the new arrival. One man is just peeping in through the open door, perhaps wondering whether there are already too many people around the bed. The father sits in the foreground writing something – today perhaps he would be sending a photo of the baby on his mobile phone… But we know from the title of the picture that this birth is anything but ordinary. This is the birth of John the Baptist, to two parents to old to expect to be able to have a child. It is a miracle, and they know it is also a significant birth for their people and for their world. But what about their visitors? What do they make of it? According to Luke’s Gospel this scene is actually set at John’s circumcision, eight days after his birth, when his relatives gathered to celebrate. They were happy for Elizabeth and Zechariah, who had waited long for this child, but they thought no more of it than that. It was only when both Elizabeth and Zechariah insisted that the baby should be called John, not a family name, that the relatives realised there was more to this than met the eye. “What then will this child become?” they wondered.

·         Think of the children in your life – your own or those of family or friends, or those you see around you today. What will they become? Take some time to pray for their futures.

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