Lectionary 587, Gospel Luke 1:57-66, 80
A person’s name is a precious thing; it identifies and distinguishes the person from others and often is the expression of the parents’ aspirations for a child. By naming a child for an older relative or ancestor we honor the elder and hope that the child bears some of the same qualities as his or her namesake. John the Baptist is the saint whom the Church honors in a special way today, and his name came about in an unusual manner. In spite of the odd circumstances his name tells us something about John, and more importantly about God who called him from birth and from his mother’s womb gave him his name (see Isa 49:1).
First we recall that due to his father Zechariah’s muteness it fell to his mother Elizabeth to name the child. Next we note that Elizabeth gives her son the name “John”, not attested among his elder relatives. Although her neighbors protest this departure from common practice Elizabeth insists, and when Zechariah confirms her decision by writing it on a tablet he is freed from his mute status and praises God. The name John is the anglicized version of the Hebrew name meaning “the Lord is merciful” and as such it anticipates the wonderful work of mercy that John himself will perform, and even more the surpassing act of mercy that God revels to his people through Jesus, John’s kinsman.
As remarkable as John was, he always pointed others away from himself and toward Jesus, and was consciously aware that his entire life found its purpose in serving as the herald of his younger cousin. In the Gospel of John we hear the Baptist go so far as to state: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). Perhaps it is in this spirit of setting our hopes on the future that we name our children, either giving our own name to a son or daughter who will carry on the family tradition or fortune or reputation, or naming a child in such a way that they represent for us a new beginning, or the opportunity we never had.
Our names are the means by which we are “introduced” to God through baptism, and by which we are made members of the Church. This beautiful sacrament that John employed to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus is the gateway through which we inherit the blessings of Jesus’ redemption and await his second coming. John brought honor to his name by preferring the love of Jesus his kinsman to life itself—“there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). While our lives are usually not nearly as dramatic as John’s nonetheless we are all called to honor our names and our status as adopted children of God and friends of Jesus (“I no longer call you slaves…I call you friends” (John 15:15)) by orienting ourselves like John toward Jesus and finding our greatest meaning in his friendship.
On this feast of the birth of the Baptist we reflect on how his preaching led many to Jesus in his own day, and the sacrament for which he is known continues to bring many new disciples to Jesus in every generation. Truly John lived up to his name meaning “the Lord is merciful”. We also look ahead to the nativity of the Lord—six months from this evening—and pray that we might live up to the hopes that our parents had when they named us, discovering the answer to these hopes and far more when we unite ourselves in discipleship to the one, forecast by John the Baptist, whose name Jesus means “salvation”.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.