Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Birth of John the Baptist - Vigil Mass, June 23, 2021

Before the first reading:

Jeremiah the prophet had to preach to corrupt kings and religious leaders of ancient Judah, who opposed him fiercely. Here God assures Jeremiah that he has always had God's support.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

While the gospels state that John the Baptist pointed the way toward Jesus, the author of the first letter of Peter says even earlier prophets did the same.

Before the gospel acclamation:

From very early, it was necessary to distinguish Jesus himself from those who represent him or prepare the way for him. John the Baptist had a miraculous and worthy origin, but he was not to be confused the Messiah.

Our Liturgical Situation: The Church so reveres John the Baptist, last of the prophets, that, when his feast occurs on a Sunday, the feast supersedes the Sunday's readings in the liturgy.

First Reading, Jeremiah 1:4-10

The Historical Background: Jeremiah lived for about 70 years, around 600 years before Jesus. Most of his work was in Judah's capital Jerusalem, where he struggled to keep the people and the leaders faithful to God in an atmosphere of political intrigue and deceit. He was blunt and outspoken, and he suffered at the hands of the powerful for it.

The Literary and Theological Background: A divine vocation is a mysterious thing. The called person needs regular reinforcement, especially when things are not going according to the called one's interpretation of God's plan. Wouldn't you think that if God called you to preach reform to the people, God would make the people willing to reform? Seems logical enough. But, alas, neither the people nor God behave in ways so simply logical. Thus the literature of prophets is full of contention between prophet and people, and full of consolation of the prophet by God. The book of Jeremiah has another feature, the prophet's eloquent complaints to God about the persecution he suffered. (See Lector's Notes, 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, for more on this.) But here, in the first sentences of his book, he describes how God called him, bolstered him, and predicted the opposition Jeremiah would endure.

Your Proclamation: In proclaiming this, note carefully that Jeremiah is relating something God said to him. Before you even speak, pause. Pause longer than you think is necessary. Then say the first sentence solemnly:

The Word of the LORD came to me, saying:

Then begin the actual words God spoke. Read these slowly, even tenderly. You're Jeremiah, crusty, battle-scarred veteran prophet, relating the story of how The Lord God called and forewarned you. For God's words, speak like God spoke, encouraging someone you love dearly, and who dearly needs your encouragement. Where you use bold images ("I set you over nations and over kingdoms, to root up and to tear down, ... to build and to plant,"), speak boldly.

Second Reading, 1 Peter 1:8-12

The Theological Assumption: Here is another take on prophecy. The author asserts that ancient prophets were trying to discern the Spirit of Christ within themselves, hinting and predicting the sufferings that Christ would endure, and the glories that followed. The author further states that all these efforts were for his present audience, not the audiences of the original prophets.

Setting that consoling thought next to the opening sentences suggests this summary: "Admittedly, it's too bad you didn't enjoy the company of the earthly Jesus, but look! People in ancient times enjoyed even less than you. Their prophets struggled to figure out what you now know. Even angels would like to understand what I'm making so clear to you."

Proclaiming it: I think your goal as lector should be to make your contemporary audience feel the sense of privilege that the author tried to instill in his audience: that people hearing these words feel singled out for a special blessing not enjoyed by other worthy creatures, even angels. Two clues support this: The ancient prophets who learned in advance about Christ did so in order that their prophecies would later bolster our faith. Rhetorically, you compare your audience to people of the past. They had it tough, you've got it good. Keep that contrast in mind throughout your speaking.

Your difficulties proclaiming this depend on the translation available to you. In English-speaking Catholic churches in most of the world, the New Jerusalem Bible translation is easy enough, except for this sentence of 46 words: "It was revealed to them that the news they brought of all the things which have now been announced to you, by those who preached to you the Good News through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, was for you and not for themselves." I have made bold the subject and the predicate of the most important clause.

But lectors in the United States, bound to use the New American Bible translation, after the easy opening paragraph, next have to read aloud two sentences of forty-eight words each. Use the link above to note how the New Jerusalem Bible punctuates these. You have to break the sentences down for the listeners by your phrasing and by changes of pitch. The verbs governing the first sentence are "searched and investigated." What results from the search and investigation? Something "was revealed," the verb governing the second sentence.

U.S. lectors should print out the text of the reading, double-spaced, and mark it up. Enclose logical phrases within nested brackets. Underline and use check marks. Do whatever it takes to make clear to yourself the structure of these sentences. Rehearse before a friend, family member or your parish's coordinator of lectors, until the one listening can "get it" without benefit of a missallette.

A Theological Aside: The author says that the prophets of old struggled with the mystery of the coming Christ, and realized that they were doing so for the benefit of the later generations that would finally come to know Christ. Or, from the opposite point of view, the early Christians would interpret the words of the ancient prophets to make clear Christ's puzzling death and astounding resurrection. So simply stated, that's fairly clear.

Comments powered by Disqus

Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

None of the authorities whom I cite regularly write about the readings for the vigil of the feast of the birth of John the Baptist.

But a few write about the readings for the feast (day) itself, and they're cited on the Lector's Notes page for the feast.

In years when the feast of the birth of John the Baptist falls on Sunday, (next, 2029), you may find comments on the vigil readings at the excellent Sunday Liturgy site of Saint Louis University.

Credit for the picture at the top:

A very old fresco showing John the Baptist with his father, the priest Zechariah (Zachary). The Web is imprecise about this, but the artwork may be from the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. That monastery was founded by Orthodox monks from Georgia in the 11th century; due to heavy debt, the Georgians sold it to Greek Orthodox priests in 1685.

Here's evidence of the Georgian origin of the artwork: I asked the Google translation service to translate "Zachary and John the Baptist" into the Georgian language, and it returned: ზაქარი და იოანე ნათლისმცემელი. Compare that to the script in the artwork.

This page updated June 20, 2021