Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, waaaay back when I was in high school and becoming re-fascinated with sports, we had the privilege of watching perhaps the greatest natural athlete of the modern era. Vincent Jackson, better known as Bo, was busy winning the Heisman Trophy, dominating baseball as his profession and football as his ‘hobby’. The Nike ‘Bo Knows’ ad campaign really only quickened Bo’s ascent to the top of the sports world; remember that the athlete Bo was eclipsing at Nike was none other than Micheal Jordan. By the time Bo Jackson was in grade school, he was already a legend, with stories surfacing about his ability to kill wild boars at age 9 and his ability to beat a dozen kids by himself in crabapple fights (which always reminds me of Mrs. Crabapple on the Simpsons). “Auburn athletic director David Housel tries to sum up: “That’s why Bo is important, because he offers us the hope and the example of being something more than we alone think that we might be.””1
It has to be tough to be a legend before you’ve even grown. Not many could relate, but John the Baptist could relate. His first act as a person came before he was even born. John was only six months in the womb when he became a legend, a larger than life character.
St. Luke tells us that “In those days” – that is, right after the archangel Gabriel had told her about God’s plan for her and she managed to say yes, that – “Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechari’ah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.”
There are about a hundred awesome things about this one little passage, but for our purposes today, I’m only going to talk about a couple of them, centering in on John and his mother (after all, we are going to hear about nothing much else, appropriately enough, than the other two in this scene after today).
First, Elizabeth herself. Elizabeth would have been called something along the lines of Elisheva, which in Hebrew means “An oath to my God.”2 This is particularly interesting because one of the oaths which a woman could swear unto God was that her son would be a Nazarite, someone set apart for God. Now, it’s very possible that her son John was, in fact, a Nazarite, as earlier in the same chapter of Luke we heard from today, Luke quoted Gabriel saying “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.” The Old Testament states characteristics of a Nazarite which are noted in Numbers 6. Verse 2 says: “He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink…”3 Elizabeth’s mother, Sobe, was sister to Mary’s mother, Anne, and so despite their great difference in age, Elizabeth being much older than Mary, they were blood, close blood. Thus St. Luke introduces us, at the very beginning of his Gospel account, to what was essentially a family drama, albeit a family drama that had cosmic implications.
And so to John the Baptist, who we talk about at length almost never, outside of Advent. His name, Yohanan, or Yonatan, which means “the grace (or mercy) of God.” And John was indeed gracious, especially considering the earthly life he could have had. If John has been a bit on the ambitious side, he could have tried to take over the whole Messiah thing. John Christ, if you will. Remember, he was already the stuff of legend before he even got started out in the wilderness, and he was a popular choice for Messiah, the people had all but anointed him the one. John made a big deal out of the fact that John the Baptist was not the Messiah, and so did the Gospel writers: remember that in the prologue of the Gospel according to John (not Baptist) that we read after ever Mass, John the Evangelist says that there was a man sent from God, whose name was John (that is, the Baptist). The same came for a witness, the Evangelist tells us, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light (the Light is Jesus) but was sent to bear witness of that Light. John the Evangelist spent time, time and space on paper to make sure that no matter what anyone tells us, John the Baptist was not the Christ.
It’s time for me to wrap up about John and his mother, though I could go on about them forever. I won’t even say much more about Bo Jackson, though I want to. As we stare down Christmas and wrap up our preparations for the holy day, take a minute to prepare your hearts by thinking about John and Elizabeth, both of whom serve for us spiritually as Bo served for us athletically: they offer us hope, hope in a time of despair over our children, over our very future as a people; they offer us an example of who we might be, who we might be if we too hear the voice of Mary’s greeting, if we too leap for joy at the coming of our Lord Jesus, if we too bear witness to that Light.