Remembering God's Covenant
God Has Sworn to Remember His Grace
In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah; his wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both were righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years. Once when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God, according to the practice of the priestly service, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to burn incense. Then, when the whole assembly of the people was praying outside at the hour of the incense offering, the angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zechariah was troubled by what he saw, and fear came upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. John will drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn their hearts toward their children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord.”
The names in this passage are powerful. The name of the father, Zachary, means “God has remembered.” The mother’s name, Elizabeth, means “God has sworn.” The son’s name, John, means “God is gracious.” These names play out in a type of family poetry that is repeated in other prayers of the New Testament, such as the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis.
God has remembered. Sometimes, we can feel that God has forgotten. What must the five people on the submarine visiting the ruins of the Titanic have felt? Surely, there were moments that they were tempted to despair. We also hear stories that overwhelm us. We feel broken. We feel like we lose faith and then we feel bad that we have lost faith.
And amid all of this, God remembers. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed for a child, especially for a son. Year after year, Zechariah served in the Temple, even though his most profound prayer went seemingly unanswered. But in the end, God remembered. Why do we have these experiences of dryness when it feels that God lets us disappear from his memory? Why do we have to experience so much pain? Why do others suffer so much? So often, when we try to console others with words of faith, we can feel empty and hypocritical. Who am I to speak when this person is suffering so much? Sometimes, the most important thing we can do is to accompany in silence, acknowledging the dreaded difficulty of the situation.
God is gracious. John the Baptist would be a tremendous witness to the goodness of God. He did not fulfill the typical Jewish life. He did not share the same hopes and dreams of his parents. Their great desire had been for posterity. We see no evidence that John ever sought anything similar. There is no sign of a wife. But he was someone who was life-giving. When other prophets would have been tempted to wither and destroy, John was gentle enough, that we would not even smother the smoldering wick, (Is. 42:3) a description applied first of all to the Messiah. If John were to pre-figure Jesus, he would have to have a disposition that could prepare the world for him as well.
John would bring grace to the world through his baptism for the forgiveness of sins. His ministry was a way to play out his name. “God is gracious.” And his grace comes to us through the mediation of others. This is something that is hard for the Protestants to accept, but something that is central to our faith as Catholics. God likes to use mediations. Each sacrament is a mediation. We are unable to baptize ourselves. We receive communion from another. While a priest can consecrate bread and wine for his own reception of the Eucharist, he cannot hear his own confession. “God is gracious” means that God uses others to give us his grace.
God has sworn. Zechariah and Elizabeth formed a model Jewish couple. Zechariah was the one who served at the Temple, bringing great honor to his family. But it was Elizabeth who would be the vessel of the fulfillment of God’s promise. Zechariah’s life would be a testimony to the truth that “God remembers,” but it would be through Elizabeth that God’s oath would come to fruition.
Too often, we doubt God. We feel that we have heard it all before. We allow sadness and sorrow to take over our hearts. We lose faith. But the story of John the Baptist can bring hope to our hearts.
As an authentic prophet, John bore witness to the truth without compromise. He denounced transgressions of God’s commandments, even when it was the powerful who were responsible for them. Thus, when he accused Herod and Herodias of adultery, he paid with his life, sealing with martyrdom his service to Christ who is Truth in person. (Pope Benedict XVI, 24 June 2007)
We have to learn to speak the truth without fear. If we do not learn to speak up, soon it will be too late. Sometimes, we think that the greatest tragedy would be to lose our life. Or when we lose a loved one, perhaps we feel that this is a greater tragedy than even our own death. But the greatest tragedy would be to lose our faith. We should entrust ourselves to this holy family’s prayers, so that we can learn to love God as a response to his swearing to remember his grace. Let us receive this grace and act accordingly.
If you are a husband, be the one who reminds his family that God remembers. Even in our darkest hour, God sees us and loves us.
If you are a wife, remember the oath of God, the promise of God. You are the key to your family receiving the promise of God.
If you are the child, remember that God’s grace is made present in this world and you can be the instrument to help other people experience this grace. Thus, we will be building strong Christian families that are able to stand as light in the darkness.
As we come to the close of June, month of the Sacred Heart, we are called to grow in the humility of the Heart of Christ. At the same time, we are called to stand up for his name. The Birth of John the Baptist reminds us of the goodness of God and that he has sworn to remember us in his grace. This is the message given to Noah after the flood through the rainbow. In a world where secularism tries to take over our symbols, it is important to remember the grace of God. When we see a rainbow, let us remember its original message, that God will never forget his covenant. This is a special grace that we can carry in our hearts.