What’s in a name – Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist – Luke 1: 57-66. 80
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This quote is a frequently referenced part of William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet seems to argue that it does not matter that Romeo is from her rival’s house of Montague, that is, that he is named “Montague.” The reference is often used to imply that the names of things do not affect what they really are.
But that argument would not work for God, for He chose names for His anointed ones or changed their names, because He wanted to indicate a new phase in their lives. Abram, was named Abraham, Jacob was renamed Israel and Simon was called Peter. But God not only changed names, He also gave names. His only begotten Son was to be called ‘Emmanuel’, meaning ‘God is with us’.
Before the angel of God conveyed to Mary the message of the birth of Jesus and His name, He had made another ‘annunciation’, perhaps a less spoken one. The Annunciation so synonymous with Mary in the New Testament, was preceded by the one made to Zechariah in the temple.
Zechariah however, was not upbeat as was his wife’s cousin, when the angel appeared to him. There was no ‘magnificat’ in praise of God, just unbelief and a question. What a price he paid for that one question; for he was silenced for the next nine months. God’s will however, was communicated none the less to Zechariah – there would be a son and he would be called John.
The annunciation of John followed a biblical Old Testament pattern seen also in the case of Isaac, Josiah and Solomon, to name a few. The three step pattern included an announcement of birth, followed by a declaration of the name and finally the announcement of the destiny of the child.
Traditionally, a Jewish first born would be named after his father or grandfather, if he was a boy. If she was a girl, she would be named after her grandmother or mother. The other siblings were named after a relative. On the eighth day, Zechariah and Elizabeth gathered in their homes their loved ones, for John the Baptist, was to be ‘incorporated into Israel’ by his circumcision.
What happened next must have been a shocker to all. Elizabeth interrupts the ceremony. That the ceremony was disrupted was bad enough; that it was done by a woman, who should by tradition been silent, made it worse! But she was firm, ‘he is not to be called little Zach after his father, his name is to be John’. Strong protests must have erupted at this family celebration. Elizabeth had more than just disrupted a ceremony, she had disrupted a tradition.
Much to everyone’s surprise, a writing tablet made of a flat piece of wax was brought and Zachariah pronounces in writing, he is not to be named Zechariah, meaning “the one whom Yahweh remembers” but “His name is John,” meaning, “God has been gracious”. God had remembered His people through the ages and had never broken His covenant. Now the moment had come when He was to send His only begotten Son and to do this He had to make an announcement. It is in changing a family tradition that God indicates the greatest change He is to make in the lives of humankind. He is going to give us His Son; for ‘God is gracious’ (meaning of John).
The solemnity of the birth of John the Baptist is not celebrated principally to draw attention to the virtues of this precursor; it is to draw attention to the ‘graciousness of God’ who will give us His Son, as our Lord. It is to highlight the upcoming ‘Emmanuel’. For John must decrease and Christ must increase. ‘God’s graciousness’ will be replaced by God’s presence Himself, ‘Emmanuel’.
The nativity of John the Baptist serves also as an occasion for us to look into our lives and cherish the many ‘John’ moments, the moments when God has ‘been gracious’ to us.
Fr Warner D’ Souza
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