The Birth of John
Luke starts out with his dedication to someone named Theophilus, then saturates his opening chapter with many advanced Christian ideals, including the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin. Not content to make John simply the prophet who heralds the coming of the Messiah (Elijah, to some), Luke fashions John into a kinsman of Jesus about which none of the other Gospels agree. Luke is no longer relaying the legend of the failed messianic candidate Yeshua Bar Abba, but proclaiming the Good News of the Risen Savior Jesus Christ.
I have heard various explanations for who Luke was and I believe “Church tradition” says he was a physician who treated or traveled with Paul, or was a protégé of Peter. Whoever he was in real life, he is the most accomplished author, instilling his words with immediacy and drama. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke does not fill his opening chapter with references to scripture, but rather relays the story as though he’s the authority.
Luke begins by telling the listeners about Zechariah, a priest at the Temple, who, while taking his turn burning incense in the holiest of holies, is greeted by an angel who tells him Zechariah’s aged wife Elizabeth will soon conceive a child who will go on to become a great individual. In the Hebrew Scriptures, where John is not mentioned, Zechariah is one of The Twelve, the collective of prophets who weren’t Isaiah or Jeremiah. Luke’s Zechariah questions how it’s possible given the age of Elizabeth for her to bear a child and the angel identities himself as Gabriel, and because of his doubt, Zechariah will not be able to speak until the child is born so that when he finally returns to those for whom he was burning incense, he cannot tell them what occurred there.
Next Luke turns to Elizabeth’s kinswoman, Mary, who’s also visited by Gabriel. He hails her as blessed by the most high and says she has found favor with God. Mary is somewhat disturbed by this visitation, until Gabriel assures her everything is okay. Mary questions how she’ll have a child when she has no husband, but Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will take care of everything. He informs her that Elizabeth is also pregnant. Mary proclaims herself to be the “handmaiden of God” sounding very much like Church liturgy will later describe her.
Mary travels to visit Elizabeth and upon entering the house, the child inside Elizabeth “leaps for joy” which Elizabeth shares with Mary. Elizabeth gives a variation of the Hail Mary, telling her cousin “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” She further identifies Mary as “mother of my Lord.” Mary gives her song of praise, anticipating how future generations will consider her, using words that were probably already devised by the Church to which Luke is writing.
At last, Elizabeth has her son, and when they come to circumcise him, she announces that his name will be John, rather than naming him after his father. When asked for confirmation, Zechariah recovers his voice and says that the child will be called John. Zechariah then gives his prophecy (perhaps a nod to the prophet from whom his name derives), predicting many great things John will accomplish, none of which include being beheaded by Herod Antipas.
Zechariah’s prophecy outlines John’s mission almost as though he was looking back on it and relaying what John had already accomplished. He brings up the fact that John is also of the house of David and comes to bring salvation. Luke concludes Chapter 1 by stating that John grew and became strong in spirit and spent much of his time in the wilderness.