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“Switching on” the grace of God

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The Lord Is My Chef Daily Recipe for the Soul by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II
Friday, Homily on Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist, 23 June 2023
Isaiah 49:1-6 ><}}}}*> Acts 13:22-26 ><}}}}*> Luke 1:57-66.80
Painting of Zechariah giving name to his son John by Italian painter Riccardo Cessi (1892) from commons.wikimedia.org.

You must have heard a lot of “Dad jokes” from Instagram. Let me now share with you a “Father joke” or priest joke. The world’s first techie was the Jewish priest Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist because he “asked for a tablet and wrote, ‘John is his name’”.

Ok. It is corny and dry but may I invite you, friends, on something wonderful about this gospel scene in celebration today of the Solemnity of the Birth of St. John the Baptist, the precursor of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Remember how Zechariah was punished by Archangel Gabriel by becoming deaf and mute after he had doubted the good news that he and his wife Elizabeth would soon have a son to be named John. Actually, Zechariah not only doubted but even questioned “how” his barren wife could still bear a child at an old age. As a result, he was forced into silence by the Lord’s angel until everything he had announced was fulfilled.

Photo by author, May 2019, Church of St. John the Baptist, Ein Karem, Israel.

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John,” But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.

Luke 1:57-64

Imagine the sight narrated to us by St. Luke: everybody so happy, trying to take a piece of action while Zechariah, father of the new-born child, old and deaf and mute was so silent like a nobody in a corner. In the Jewish society, it is the father who gives name to the children, especially to the son; but, due to Zechariah’s condition, nobody bothered to ask him so that their neighbors, like the typical epal or pakialamera we call in Filipino, assumed the role.

But Elizabeth the mother who had gone into a self-imposed silence upon bearing her child, declared their son would be called “John” or Jehohanan that means “God is gracious” or “graciousness of God” in Hebrew.

Finally amid all the noise and talk, Zechariah made the bold move by writing on a tablet “John is his name” to confirm and reaffirm the name given by his wife Elizabeth. It was a crucial moment when Zechariah boldly made a stand about his faith in God, obeying the angel’s instruction to name his son “John”.

Photo by author of the site believed to be the birthplace of St. John the Baptist at the side of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Ein Karem, Israel, May 2019.

What really happened was the assertion of the plan of God when Zechariah faithfully wrote “John is his name”. That’s what amazed the people so that “fear came upon the neighbors for surely the hand of the Lord was with him” (Lk.1:65, 66).

With a single stroke of hand, everyone felt God present among them as they realized something very special with the child. So amazing too as experienced by the people was when Zechariah asserted God’s plan by naming his son “John”, he was finally able to speak and hear again!

Whenever we assert the plan of God in our lives, in our community, in our family and country, new possibilities open as we break free from all obstacles and hindrances that prevent us from growing and maturing, from being joyful and fulfilled.

Whenever we assert the plan of God in our lives, in our community, in our family and country, that is when we “switch on” the grace of God, when we make God’s blessings operable among us and thus we become like John, a precursor of the Lord whose name means “God is gracious”.

Whenever we obey and assert the plan of God in our lives, in our community, in our family and country, that is when we take that leap of faith, believe again and experience God again.

Many times we could not see nor experience nor realize God’s blessings around us and within us because we do not actually believe and trust him. God’s grace is like a “switch” we have to turn on to operate like the electric light or any appliance and gadget. And the good news is, that grace and “switch” is in us already! We just have to switch it on.

Here we find anew the importance of silent, deep prayer.

Photo by author, Anvaya Cove, 19 May 2023.

The imposed silence on Zechariah made him realize how he had been held prisoner by his disappointments and frustrations over a long period of time when God did not hear his prayers for a child. Imagine their shame being childless despite their being good persons and as husband and wife. At that time, childlessness was seen as a punishment from God, a curse. It must have been a strong blow too to Zechariah’s ego as a priest consulted by everyone for advise and prayers yet could not sire his wife with a child!

All those negative feelings of humiliation and dejection could have caused Zechariah’s trust and faith in God to wane that even his priestly duties have become perfunctory that he never saw the tremendous grace and blessing of incensing the Holy of Holies of the temple. Such duty was a pure grace in itself because it happens only once a year during the holiest celebration of the Jewish of Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement. Priests went through a long process of drawing lots on who among them would incense the Holy of Holies because they were so many in number.

Many times we have been like Zechariah, numb and even indifferent to the movements and works of God in our lives following our many failures in life. Though we may be praying with many devotions doing so many religious activities, we have actually become “spiritual dwarfs” who never grew and matured in faith. Our prayers and devotions have become mere “habits hard to break” that are empty and meaningless.

Photo by author taken in May 2022, Parish of St. John the Baptist in Calumpit, the oldest church in Bulacan province.

Today God is calling us to do a Zechariah, to take that bold step of asserting and insisting God’s plan like when Zechariah boldly declared in writing “John is his name”. The first reading beautifully reminds us of one reality we all go through by wrongly thinking God does not care at all for us when nothing seems to happen with our prayers and efforts in life, in our ministry and mission.

Hear me, O coastlands; listen, O distant peoples. The Lord called me from birth; from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength, yet my reward is with the Lord, my recompense is with my God.

Isaiah 49:1, 4

We cannot be another John – a graciousness of God within us and for others unless we rediscover the courage and clarity to do a Zechariah by asserting God’s command and plans entrusted specifically to us.

See also that upon regaining his sense of hearing and ability to speak, Zechariah “spoke blessing God” by singing the Benedictus in the following verses. The Benedictus is the morning hymn of praise to God we priest sing or recite daily in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. It mentions the blessedness of God and his many blessings to Israel while towards its end, we find Zechariah sending forth his son John to fulfill his mission from God in preparing the way of Jesus Christ. It is prayed in the morning to make us aware of our mission to prepare the way of the Lord Jesus.

Let us be patient, never lose hope and enthusiasm in doing the works of God even if nothing seems to happen at all. Everything we do matters a lot with God and with those around us as St. Paul explained in the second reading on the role of St. John the Baptist in salvation history.

Let us keep in mind that God remembers and keeps his promise always because he is gracious all the time. The name Zechariah in Hebrew means “God remembers” while Elizabeth is “God has promised”. John, as we have earlier said, means “God is gracious.” Let us do our part to bring Jesus into this world so fragmented and tired. Have a grace-filled weekend! Amen.

Photo by author taken in May 2022, altar of the Parish of St. John the Baptist in Calumpit, the oldest church in Bulacan province.
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