Friday, June 23, 2017

He Will Be Called John

When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." So, they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed. Luke 1:59-63

You, My child, shall be called The prophet of the Most High, For you will go before the Lord to prepare His way, To give his people knowledge of salvation By the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our Lord, The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness And the shadow of death, And to guide our feet into the way of peace. (From “The Canticle of Zechariah” Luke 1:76-79)

Why do we not have Biblical stories about Little Zach the Baptist?

In an essay on the “Power of Names,” Rabbi Benjamin Blech writing on notes: “Names represent our identity not simply because they are a convenient way to allow us to be distinguished one from another. It is because they define us. The names we are given at birth aren’t accidental. They are to some extent prophetic. They capture our essence. They are the keys to our soul.”[i]

It was and remains customary to name children after those whom we deeply admire or seek to memorialize. I am named after my maternal grandfather Anthony Rizzo. To link a newborn with someone from the past is to bring together two souls in an inseparable bond of life.  However, rather than using traditional naming conventions among the Jews, Zechariah and Elizabeth broke with tradition and obeyed the message of an angel who declared that their baby would be called John. 

Rabbi Beich, a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, further explains: “The Hebrew word for soul is neshamah. Central to that word, the middle two letters, shin and mem, make the word shem, Hebrew for ‘name.’ Thus, your name is the key to your soul.”[ii]  John’s name would be the key to his mission and vocation. 

The drama of the Good News today has to do with a family argument over the name.  When Gabriel informed Zacharias that he and his wife would have a child in their old age, the next message instructed the priest to name the boy John.  “…your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.”

However, everyone in the village expected the parents to name their son after his father or grandfather.  Why do we not have Biblical stories about Little Zach the Baptist?  His mother Elizabeth insisted that the baby’s name would be John.  The relatives assembled tried to go over her head.  They turned to the deaf and mute Zechariah to resolve the feud over the name.  Due to the obedience that Zechariah paid to the instructions of the angel -- just like Joseph would follow later when Jesus was born – the parents unanimously named the baby John.   

It was not what the name “John” meant but more the symbolism of the new and different name that is important to us.  If the baby was Little Zach, he would have followed in his father’s footsteps and likely become a priest. 

John would not follow in his father’s steps. He would not learn to do what his father did. He would not be a priest. This, of course, was precisely the case, and thus the reason for the name John. It isn’t the meaning of the name “John” which is so important, then, but the message implied by having any name other than Zacharias which is such an emotional issue. If many of those gathered at the circumcision ceremony were relatives, Elizabeth’s insistence that the boy be named John was to renounce the family, its work, and its perpetuation through the next generation. [iii]

In fact, John fulfilled the symbolism of his name and the poetic words of the Canticle of Zechariah:  He was a light shining “on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”  The path of peace is the literal and symbolic path that leads to Jesus.

What is your name – and are you living up to it?

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