St. John the Baptist, St. Elizabeth and the Dobbs Decision

John the Baptist and his mother teach us how to react to the overturn of Roe and Casey.

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée  (1725–1805), “St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist With Zachary”
Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1725–1805), “St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist With Zachary” (photo: Public Domain)

June 24, if it were not the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart for most American Catholics, would be the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist — and indeed, in some places both feasts are celebrated together. It is also, providentially, now the day of the overturn of Roe and Casey, due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Poor St. John, of “he must increase, I must decrease” fame, occasionally gets overshadowed by the Sacred Heart, due to his natal feast being near the end of June; but in this case the occlusion is fortuitous, and serves as a reminder of what St. John was all about.

We tend to think of St. John as a bit crazy. Whether he’s played by the aged-but-still-hulking Charlton Heston who dunks Roman soldiers in the water or by an equally-frenetic but much smaller David Amito (who really does look like he lives on grasshoppers), John the Baptist is a nut: unapproachable, unlikeable, unrelatable.

What we sometimes forget is that St. John, like Jesus himself, simply combined what we think of as contradictory things and in so doing showed their unity. St. John railed against hypocritical religious authorities and lewd rulers, but he also was an advocate for justice who accepted sinners and foreigners for his baptism, on the condition that they stopped injuring others by their sins (Luke 3:10-14). And when people encountered this near-unique combination of mildness and sternness, of justice and mercy, they had a rational reaction: “All were thinking in their hearts of John, that perhaps he might be the Christ” (Luke 3:15).

John’s heart is, in other words, so conformed to the Christ whose forerunner he is that he is stern with those who require sternness, and mild towards those who require mildness. His concern is not what others may think of him, nor for some notion of consistency as the world understands it: he meets people where they are, while simultaneously not swerving an inch from what God would have of them.

One presumes that John learned this — what part of it was learned humanly, and not directly from the Holy Spirit — from his parents. St. Elizabeth his mother shows just this combination of mildness and firmness shortly after his nativity.

“And it came to pass,” Luke writes, “that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father’s name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: ‘Not so; but he shall be called John.’ And they said to her: ‘There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name’” (Luke 1:59-61).

The single-mindedness of Elizabeth is astonishing. Here she is, a new mother, surrounded by her relatives; they start offering advice, as relatives are wont to offer new moms. And Elizabeth, like most new moms — especially one who is older and has no doubt seen friends have their own babies — is filled with a singular mixture of confidence and doubt. On the one hand, she’s certainly done her research and therefore knows what she needs to do. On the other hand, the experience of giving birth is so overwhelming that it turns expectations upside down and can make one doubt what one already knows.

So here is Elizabeth, in this state that most mothers can recall fairly vividly. And then her relatives start questioning — of all things — what to name her son. Imagine her frustration! And her fear. For it is not only that she and Zachary have discussed and decided on the matter already; it is worse than that: it has been prophesied that the child shall be called John; God’s messenger has said so. To call him anything else would seem a rebuke, a rejection of God’s promises, that both holy and servile fear would dictate against. God’s purposes will not be thwarted: the Messiah would come, whether or not these too-helpful relatives get their way here and now; and God surely would not continue Zachary’s punishment because of some other persons’ mistake.

Still, these are the moments when, humanly speaking, it is easy to forget that God is in command of the situation; it is easy, humanly speaking, to become upset with kindly people who (though they may not know it) are thwarting our best purposes or (worse yet!) what we have discerned with some certainty as God’s will.

There is no record of whether or not Elizabeth got flustered in the moment. One rather suspects that her silence, like that of her cousin Mary the Mother of God, is to be taken as an indication of her calm resolve. Presumably she stood her ground in some way and did not surrender to the relatives’ facially reasonable protestations; perhaps she herself refers the matter to Zachary, or perhaps the relatives, frustrated by her stubbornness, do so. In any case, “they made signs to his father, how he would have him called” (Luke 1:62).

Zachary of course backs his wife up to the hilt (it’s his tongue, after all!) and writes “John is his name” (Luke 1:63). Not, “Sheesh, listen to my wife, will you?” or “Please, for the love of mud, call him John!” but once again, as in Elizabeth’s case, with a simple, single-minded stubbornness, he sticks to his (their) guns in the matter. He does not ask or demand that the name be given to the boy, but rather states that this is the boy’s name. Whatever happens at the circumcision, whatever legal name he is given, in the eyes of heaven the boy is a reminder of God’s graciousness: that is, essentially, who or what this herald of the Messiah is.

And the relatives, who evidently either do not know or do not believe in the story of Zachary and the angel, “all wondered” (John 1:63) — not at a miracle; there has been no miracle yet! They simply cannot understand Elizabeth’s and Zachary’s stance.

Then of course comes the miracle: Zachary speaks or, rather, Zachary prophesies — that is to say, the Holy Ghost speaks through him; and hearts and minds are changed.

That should be a reminder to all of us about how to act and speak, how to help and how to stay out of the way, what to say and when to keep silent in the wake of Dobbs.