St John the Baptist icon 13th c St Catharine's Monastery, Sinai
In our fast-changing world, new careers, new spheres of work have emerged that now employ huge numbers of people. I suppose that if we were asked to name one area of employment that did not exist 50 years ago, most of us would plump for IT. Certainly the vast spread of digital knowledge and communication has been a massively transforming factor in the world. Yet there are other areas of work, perhaps less obvious, that scarcely existed until a few decades ago.
Here is one that I suspect you did not think of: Public Relations. Media advisers. Publicists. Spin doctors. Image consultants. Public Relations Officers. Call them what you like, they are a relatively new profession, and one with enormous influence. Their job is to create a climate of public opinion that is favourable to their clients. They are there to accentuate what is positive and to explain away errors of judgement, or distract attention from whatever is unfavourable. This is not lying, nor is it deceitfulness, but it is a manipulation of appearances so that the best possible face is the one that is retained in the public consciousness. No large corporation or public body can ignore this imperative. Churches too have their public relations advisers. I was one myself for a short time, several decades ago.
Compare and contrast John the Baptist, and the readings that we have at Mass this weekend. He will be part of a long line of prophets stretching back to Elijah and the great prophets of the 8th century BC. Prophets were not people who read palms or tea leaves. They spoke the truth about the situation of the world. They were blunt about the social, political and religious realities of their society. They were the very opposite of the gilding work of spin doctors today.
Our first reading from Isaiah (49.1-6) invites us in retrospect to apply these words about Isaiah to the Baptist himself: it is God’s intention that this child will become a prophet who will speak the truth so that, like a sharp sword, his words will cut through all nonsense. God will be his strength. It is God’s will that his truth-telling will play a key role in bringing God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Reading this we think inevitably of how John the Baptist became the herald of the Messiah. As our reading from Acts reminds us (13.22-26), part of the message of the Baptist was the necessity of repentance. Here again we have the unvarnished truth that was part of the vocation of a prophet. No more in his day than in ours, would it be popular to tell the world that it was sunk in sin, selfishness and moral decay. Yet this was what John the Baptist would grow up to do. It was part of his preparation for the Messiah, a heightening of expectations about God’s will for the world. No one need be trapped in sin, said the Baptist: it is time for new beginnings.
Hence some of the miraculous elements in the gospel that we hear today (Luke 1.57-66, 80). Elizabeth’s pregnancy after many years of disappointment was itself a miracle. Even the naming is not a random process. Instead, the naming of John becomes a moment when his father’s speech is restored. The lesson is that a new era of speech is dawning, when God will raise up those who will speak and energise them to tell the truth – in this case, the truth about God’s reign breaking into earth’s history with the Messiah about to come. We might think of Zechariah’s sudden recovery of speech as a pointer forward not only to his son John the Baptist, but even ultimately, to Jesus himself who will be supremely the Word. Jesus is the Word not just in words but in his whole pattern of life, death and resurrection, all of which will speak of God reaching out to us.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.