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13 November. Luke chapter 1
The first chapter of Luke’s gospel begins with an assurance that he has researched it before writing it, and although clearly influenced by what Mark had previously written, he adds material of his own, which seems to have come from talking to Jesus’ extended family. Thus, before getting to the matter of the start of Jesus’ ministry, or even his birth, he finds that the birth of both Jesus and John was prophesied by angels. Such an annunciation was not unique – Abram and Sarah, and Hannah, had such angelic visits before the birth of Isaac and Samuel respectively. But for it to happen twice in one year, and to members of the same family, that was something quite astounding.
John the Baptist is sometimes rather overlooked, although for Luke he seems to have been just as important in Jesus’ story as his mother Mary. Jesus himself described John as “the greatest of those born of women”, and John’s ministry seems to have started well before that of Jesus although they were the same age. He is often described as the forerunner or herald, the one whose role was to prepare people (by his baptism of repentance for sin) for Jesus whose task was the full reconciliation of people to God.
John’s feast day is traditionally 24 June (my birthday, as it happens). I presume that this is working backwards six months from the supposed date of Jesus’ birth (24 or 25 December) given that Luke puts the annunciation to Mary “in the sixth month” of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. It is probably appropriate to put them at opposite points in the circle of the Christian year, since their approach was diametrically opposed. John, dedicated as a Nazirite who had to abstain from alcohol, also felt compelled to live the life of an ascetic hermit in the desert, fasting or eating sparingly, clothed uncomfortably and preaching a hard message of judgement and repentance.
Jesus’ interpretation of the holy life was quite different – enjoying life’s pleasures in so far as they did no harm to anyone else, living in the midst of the people to whom he ministered, with a message that emphasised forgiveness and healing (but not suggesting that our actions do not matter). But both of them were filled by the same Spirit and inspired by the same scriptures.
Whether you or I are more like a John or a Jesus in our interpretation of the religious life will depend on character, upbringing, the surrounding culture, and circumstances. If you find meaning for your life in silence, fasting and penitence, that’s great, but don’t criticise those who find it in a more active lifestyle and the enjoyment of good food. I am more of a Jesus in that respect, despite sharing a birthday with John. “Everything with thanksgiving” was St Paul’s motto, and it can be yours.