A Child that Christmas forgot – Friday, 4th Week in Advent – Luke 1:57-66
It is true that the birth of John the Baptist is celebrated on the 24th of June but look at the buildup to the Christmas narrative and his birth is a page before that of Christs’. In fact, the Gospel of Luke positions the birth of the precursor as an immediate text before the birth of Christ in chapter two. The liturgy most deliberately wants us to pause and reflect on the birth of another very significant child before we can ring the bells of Christmas.
The birth of John was greeted with rejoicing, both for the parents and to God who had shown them great mercy. While the Gospel of today mentions the birth of John in just two verses it dedicates the next eight verses to the his circumcision and the events surrounding it. The birth of John was an act of God’s mercy and part of his salvific plan, the actions surrounding his circumcision reflect the faith of those who were beneficiaries of this mercy. Elizabeth and Zechariah are presented as models of faith and fidelity.
God commanded both Abraham and Moses to circumcise male babies when they are eight days old (Genesis 17:9-14; Leviticus 12:3). John’s circumcision, while routine, nevertheless marks Zechariah and Elizabeth as faithful in their observance of Jewish law. That is to be expected, of course, given that Zechariah is a priest (v. 5; see also v. 6).
In the culture of the Israelites, the name of a child was very significant. God sometimes changed the name of a person, such as changing the name of Abram to Abraham, of Sarai to Sarah, and of Jacob to Israel. At other times, God gave the name of the child before birth. Such is the case with both John and Jesus.
The drama of our text has to do with a family argument over the name which was to be given the child of Zacharia and Elizabeth. Names were important in that culture, and were supposed to embody something of the importance or character of the person or to make some sort of statement or to express some sort of faith. The naming of a child would normally be a parental function, but these neighbours and relatives try to influence this naming to honour Zacharia by naming the child after him. The question which we must bear in mind as we approach our study of this passage is, “why would Luke bother to include the account of a family argument over the name of a child?” There are two theories.
The naming of the son after his father implied that this child would walk in the steps of his father, that he would carry on the father’s name, and thus his work as well. Had John been named ‘Little Zach,’ he would have been expected to grow up as a priest, just like his father. He would thus have gone about with his father as he carried out his priestly duties, learning how to do things, just like his daddy did them. To be named by any other name would have implied just the opposite. John would not follow in his father’s steps.