OK, I’ll come clean. I really have a hard time really paying attention. Oh, I can keep attention for a while, but, inevitably, my strength gives out and I’m distracted by my pain, or expectations, or even my hopes. My attention is pulled in a million different directions by a world and the passions that want me to focus only on them. And I give in to that temptation too much!
No wonder the Church gives us the grace of confession to come to the Church and humbly say “My attention was captured by that which leads me away from God. Please forgive and help me!”
So, the Church is here to empower us to strengthen our attentiveness AND to help us heal when we stumble and focus our attention on the wrong things!
What a wonderful pattern of living is offered to us in the Faith! And this isn’t just some religious philosophy, but a real and embodied Faith in how God is active in His world to bring us back to Himself. We see this clearly in the coming of the last Old Testament Prophet, St. John the blessed forerunner. Today is his birthday!
Look at our lesson today as we celebrate the nativity of St. John the Baptist in Luke 1:24-25, 57-68, 76, 80:
At that time, Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias conceived, and for five months hid herself, saying, “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.” Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zacharias after his father, but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all marveled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.
The recollection of the events surrounding the birth of St. John, the Forerunner, is filled with the wisdom of the Faith to prepare us for the coming of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. The coming of the forerunner was expected because of the prophecies of the Old Testament surrounding the coming of the Messiah. And here he comes. We start with John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zacharias. Zacharias is a priest of the Temple and his wife is a cousin to the Theotokos, Mary.
What I love most about this story is how Zacharias is confronted and confronts his own lack of Faith. He is told earlier that his wife was going to get pregnant, and he doubts the words of the angel who reveals this miracle to him. That’s why he couldn’t speak when John was born. But once his faith embraces the miracle of the birth of John by naming his miracle son as the angel commanded him to be named, his tongue is set free and he is able to once again speak! Everyone is amazed because the name John is not a family name for Zacharias and Elizabeth. Once again, the Lord fulfilling His purpose by disputing our patterns so that we can WAKE UP and pay attention to the highest good.
This is the wonderful miracle of attentiveness in our Orthodox Faith. We are invited not to ignore other things or persons or realities but to properly prioritize our attention so that we are giving proper attention to everything we should be focused on. BUT, if you get the highest priority wrong, it infects the rest of your attention priorities in a negative way!
St. Zacharias learned this lesson when he doubted that God would give him and Elizabeth a child in their old age. And then when his priorities of attentiveness were corrected by his mute experience, he woke up to where his highest priority exists, in putting God first in his life and informing all his other priorities that they will have to find their proper place with this highest priority in mind.
Today, what do you pay attention to most in your life? When was the last time you actually did a “spiritual” inventory of your priorities? On this feast day of the Nativity of the Blessed Forerunner, St. John, we can take a moment to make sure we are paying attention to the best first and live our lives as Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. O Prophet and Forerunner of the presence of Christ, we who fervently honor you cannot worthily praise you. For by your revered and glorious birth the barrenness of your mother and the muteness of your father were unbound, and the incarnation of the Son of God is proclaimed to the world. Amen!