Today Catholics celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. It is a day observed with greater honor than the feast days of most other saints - a solemnity rather than a feast. It is a day especially close to my heart as we have a son named after John, the Messiah's Forerunner, the flesh and blood cousin of our Lord. Around 1600 years ago, Augustine of Hippo wrote a beautiful homily for this occasion which touches on many themes the Spirit has been highlighting to me. Below is an excerpt from that sermon followed by some reflections of my own.
The Church observes the birth of John as in some way sacred; and you will not find any other of the great men of old whose birth we celebrate officially. We celebrate John’s as we celebrate Christ’s. This point cannot be passed over in silence, and if I may not perhaps be able to explain it in the way that such an important matter deserves, it is still worth thinking about it a little more deeply and fruitfully than usual. John is born of an old woman who is barren; Christ is born of a young woman who is a virgin. That John will be born is not believed, and his father is struck dumb; that Christ will be born is believed, and he is conceived by faith.
I have introduced these points even if we are not up to examining all the twists and turns of such a great mystery, either for lack of capacity or for lack of time. You will be taught much better by the one who speaks in you even when I am not here; the one about whom you think loving thoughts, the one whom you have taken into your hearts and whose temple you have become.
John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. That he is somehow or other a boundary is something that the Lord himself indicates when he says, The Law and the prophets were until John. So he represents the old and heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb. You will remember that, before he was born, at Mary’s arrival he leapt in his mother’s womb. Already he had been marked out there, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him. These are divine matters, and exceed the measure of human frailty. Finally, he is born, he receives a name, and his father’s tongue is loosed.
Zachary is struck dumb and loses his voice, until John, the Lord’s forerunner, is born and releases his voice for him. What does Zachary’s silence mean, but that prophecy was obscure and, before the proclamation of Christ, somehow concealed and shut up? It is released and opened up by his arrival, it becomes clear when the one who was being prophesied is about to come. The releasing of Zachary’s voice at the birth of John has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ.
I love this image of the Zechariah's tongue being loosened at John's birth. It is true that the prophets had been silenced for centuries before the birth of Jesus. It was a season of waiting, of darkness, like a womb. But when the Messiah came, it was time to prophesy again - not so much about what would come in the future, but to bear witness to the One who was, and is, among us.
John the Apostle explains that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Rev. 19:10)
Thus prophecy had to accompany the birth of the Church just as it had heralded the birth of the Messiah. At Pentecost and the Spirit of God fell upon men and women, old and young, slave and free, such that they all found themselves prophesying. (Acts 2) This was a fulfillment of Joel's vision, and the great hope of Moses. "Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num 11:29)
It is clear from Paul's writings that the gift of prophecy, along with other gifts of the Holy Spirit, flowed freely in the first century church. If the spirit of prophecy is truly the testimony of Jesus, then this makes sense. The prophetic voice is vital to the preaching and reception of the gospel. However, as the Church became more established and more comfortable, it seems the gifts of the gifts of the Spirit became quieter and more rare. Not unlike, perhaps, the silence in the days before John the Baptist.
Then about 100 years ago, a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit began moving upon the Church through the charismatic renewal. This widespread experience of the Holy Spirit spread rapidly across racial boundaries, language barriers, geographical and denominational lines. Once again common people were prophesying.
My great hope is that this move of the Holy Spirit is like John the Baptist's voice calling in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" My belief is that the Spirit is working to make ready a Bride for Jesus. My prayer, as Paul recommends, is that the Church earnestly desire this work of the Spirit and long for the greater gifts, like prophecy. Then, I believe the Bride will be able to cry out with the Spirit, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus!"
John the Baptist once described himself as "the friend of the Bridegroom" so I am certain this his prayer.