From: Luke 1:5-25
The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty,
 according to the custom of the priesthood, it fell to him by lot to enter the tem-
ple of Lord and burn incense.  And the whole multitude of the people were pra-
ying outside at the hour of incense.  And there appeared to him an angel of
the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was
troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.  But the angel said to him,
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth will
bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and
gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth;  for he will be great before the
Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the
Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the sons
of Israel to the Lord their God,  and he will go before him in the spirit and po-
wer of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient
to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old
man, and my wife is advanced in years.”  And the angel answered him, “I
am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I was sent to speak to you,
and to bring you this good news.  And behold, you will be silent and unable
to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not be-
lieve my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”  And the people were
waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered at his delay in the temple.  And
when he came out, he could not speak to them, and they perceived that he had
seen a vision in the temple; and he made signs to them and remained dumb.
 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she hid
herself, saying,  “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when He looked
on me, to take away my reproach among men.”
6. After referring to the noble ancestry of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the evangelist
now speaks of a higher type of nobility, the nobility of virtue: “Both were righteous
before God.” “For not everyone who is righteous in men’s eyes is righteous in
God’s; men have one way of seeing and God another; men see externals but
God sees into the heart. It can happen that someone seems righteous because
his virtue is false and is practiced to win people’s approval; but he is not virtuous
in God’s sight if his righteousness is not born of simplicity of soul but is only si-
mulated in order to appear good.
“Perfect praise consists in being righteous before God, because only he can be
called perfect who is approved by Him who cannot be deceived” (St. Ambrose,
“Expositio Evangelii Sec. Lucam, in loc.”).
In the last analysis what a Christian must be is righteous before God. St. Paul is
advocating this when he tells the Corinthians, “But with me it is a very small thing
that I should be judged by you or by any human court. It is the Lord who judges
me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes,
who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the pur-
poses of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God” (1
Corinthians 4:3ff). On the notion of the just or righteous man, see the note on
8. There were twenty-four groups or turns of priests to which functions were allo-
cated by the drawing of lots; the eighth group was that of the family of Abijah (cf.
1 Chronicles 24:7-19), to which Zechariah belonged.
9-10. Within the sacred precincts, in a walled-off area, stood the temple proper.
Rectangular in form, there was first a large area which was called “the Holy
Place”, in which was located the altar of incense referred to in verse 9. Behind
this was the inner sanctum, called “the Holy of Holies”, where the Ark of the Co-
venant with the tablets of the Law used to be kept; only the high priest had ac-
cess to this, the most sacred part of the temple. The veil or great curtain of the
temple separated these two area from one another. The sacred building was sur-
rounded by a courtyard, called the courtyard of the priests and outside this, at
the front of the temple, was what was called the courtyard of the Israelites,
where the people stayed during the ceremony of incensing.
10. While the priest offered incense to God, the people in the courtyard joined
with him in spirit: even in the Old Testament every external act of worship was
meant to be accompanied by an interior disposition of self-offering to God.
With much more reason should there be this union between external and internal
worship in the liturgical rites of the New Covenant (cf. “Mediator Dei”, 8), in the
liturgy of the Church. Besides, this consistency befits the nature of man, com-
prised as he is of body and soul.
11. Angels are pure spirits, that is, they have no body of any kind; therefore,
“they do not appear to men exactly as they are; rather, they manifest themselves
in forms which God gives them so that they can be seen by those to whom He
sends them” (St. John Damascene, “De Fide Orthodoxa,” 2, 3).
In addition to adoring and serving God, angelic spirits act as God’s messengers
and channels of His providence towards men; this explains why they appear so
often in salvation history and why Sacred Scripture refers to them in so many
passages (cf., e.g. Hebrews 1:14).
Christ’s birth was such an important event that angels were given a very promi-
nent role in connection with it. Here, as at the Annunciation to Mary, the arch-
angel St. Gabriel is charged with delivering God’s message.
“It is no accident that the angel makes his appearance in the temple, for this an-
nounces the imminent coming of the true Priest and prepares the heavenly sacri-
fice at which the angels will minister. Let it not be doubted, then, that the angels
will be present when Christ is immolated” (St. Ambrose, “Expositio Evangelii Sec.
Lucam, in loc.”).
12. “No matter how righteous a man be, he cannot look at an angel without fee-
ling afraid; that is why Zechariah was alarmed: he could not but quake at the pre-
sence of the angel; he could not take the brightness that surrounded him” (St.
John Chrysostom, “De Incomprehensibili Dei Natura”). The reason for this is not
so much the angels’ superiority to man as the fact that the grandeur of God’s ma-
jesty shines out through the angel: “And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Bles-
sed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to
me, ‘These are true words of God.’ Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but
he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your bre-
thren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God’” (Revelation 19:9-10).
13. Through the archangel God intervenes in an exceptional way in the married
life of Zechariah and Elizabeth; but the message he brings has much wider refe-
rence; it has significance for the whole world. Elizabeth is already quite old but
she is going to have a son who will be called John (”God is gracious”) and he
will be the forerunner of the Messiah. This showed that “the fullness of time” (cf.
Galatians 4:4) was imminent, for which all righteous people of Israel had yearned
(cf. John 8:56; Hebrews 11:13).
“Your prayer is heard,” St. Jerome comments, “that is to say, you are given more
than you asked for. You prayed for the salvation of the people, and you have been
given the Precursor” (”Expositio Evangelium Sec. Lucam, in loc.”). Our Lord also
sometimes gives us more than we ask for: “There is a story about a beggar mee-
ting Alexander the Great and asking him for alms. Alexander stopped and instruc-
ted that the man be given the government of five cities. The beggar, totally con-
fused and taken aback, explained, ‘I didn’t ask for that much.’ And Alexander re-
plied, ‘You asked like the man you are; I give like the man I am” (St. J. Escriva,
“Christ Is Passing By”, 160). Since God responds so generously and gives us
more than we ask for, we should face up to difficulties and not be cowed by
14-17. The archangel St. Gabriel gives Zechariah three reasons why he should
rejoice over the birth of this child; first, because God will bestow exceptional holi-
ness on him (verse 15); second, because he will lead many to salvation (verse
16); and third, because his whole life, everything he does, will prepare the way
for the expected Messiah (verse 17).
In St. John the Baptist two prophecies of Malachi are fulfilled; in them we are told
that God will send a messenger ahead of Him to prepare the way for Him (Mala-
chi 3:1; 4:5-6). John prepares the way for the first coming of the Messiah in the
same way as Elijah will prepare the way for His second coming (cf. St. Ambrose,
“Expositio Evangelii Sec. Lucam, in loc.”; St. Thomas Aquinas, “Commentary on
St. Matthew”, 17, 11, “in loc.”). This is why Christ will say, “What did you go out
to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom
it is written, ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, who shall prepare
Thy way before Thee’” (Luke 7:26-27).
18. Zechariah’s incredulity and his sin lie not in his doubting that this message
has come from God but in forgetting that God is almighty, and in thinking that he
and Elizabeth are past having children. Later, referring to the conception of John
the Baptist, the same angel explains to Mary that “with God nothing will be im-
possible” (Luke 1:37). When God asks us to take part in any undertaking we
should rely on His omnipotence rather than our own meagre resources.
19-20. “Gabriel” means “might of God”. God commanded the archangel Gabriel
to announce the events connected with the incarnation of the Word; already in
the Old Testament it was Gabriel who proclaimed to the prophet Daniel the time
of the Messiah’s coming (Daniel 8:15-26, 9:20-27). This present passage deals
with the announcement of the conception and birth of Christ’s Precursor, and it
is the time same angel who will reveal to the Blessed Virgin the mystery of the
24. Elizabeth hid herself because of the strangeness of pregnancy at her age
and out of a holy modesty which advised her not to make known God’s gifts pre-
25. Married couples who want to have children, to whom God has not yet given
any, can learn from Zechariah and Elizabeth and have recourse to them as inter-
cessors. To couples in this situation St. Escriva recommended that “they should
not give up hope too easily. They should ask God to give them children and, if it
is His will, to bless them as He blessed the Patriarchs of the Old Testament.
And then it would be advisable for both of them to see a good doctor. If in spite of
everything God does not give them children, they should not feel frustrated. They
should be happy, discovering in this very fact God’s will for them. Often God does
not give them children because He is ‘asking more’. God asks them to put the
same effort and the same kind and gentle dedication into helping their neighbors
as they would have put into raising their own children, without the human joy that
comes from parenthood. There is, then, no reason for feeling they are failures or
for giving way to sadness” (”Conversations”, 96).
Here is the authoritative teaching of Bl. John Paul II on this subject: “It must not
be forgotten, however, that, even when procreation is not possible, conjugal life
does not for this reason lose its value. Physical sterility in fact can be for spouses
the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person—for exam-
ple, adoption, various forms of educational work, assistance to other families and
to poor or handicapped children” (”Familiaris Consortio”, 14).
Source: “The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries”. Biblical text from the
Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. Commentaries by members of
the Faculty of Theology, University of Navarre, Spain.
Published by Four Courts Press, Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland, and
by Scepter Publishers in the United States.
|First reading||Judges 13:2-7,24-25 ©|
|Psalm||Psalm 70:3-6,16-17 ©|
|Gospel||Luke 1:5-25 ©|