“What will this child be?” Today, six months before the birth of Jesus, we celebrate the birthday of the man who was sent ahead of him to prepare the way, St. John the Baptist. Like every birthday, it is a celebration of the gift of life. As we ponder the birth and unique mission of John, we also gain insight into our own unique vocation, for the Lord has called each one of us from our mother’s womb.
The account of John’s birth reveals its miraculous and mysterious quality. His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were just and devout, but they were childless and elderly. When Elizabeth conceived and bore a child in her old age, everyone saw it as a clear sign of God’s intervention. The neighbors rejoiced with Elizabeth when they heard “that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her.”
In a healthy culture, the birth of a child is always a cause for great joy. One of the grave signs of an anti-life mentality is the negative reaction some people have upon hearing about any child born in difficult circumstances. If the child is expected to be sickly, or if the family is poor, or if there are already two or three children in the family, or if the mother is “too old,” the anti-life response is to imply, or say directly, that this child should not have been born. In other words, they determine that the child should have been either prevented or aborted. This distorted approach to life brings the bitter fruit of sadness into the world, whereas a pro-life mentality brings joy.
Today’s Gospel focuses not so much on the birth of John but rather on the naming of the child on the eighth day. This moment too inspired joy and awe in those who heard about it. All were surprised that a new name was introduced into the family – “John,” a name which means, “God is gracious.” Also, as soon as Zechariah writes, “John is his name,” he regains his power of speech. The Fathers of the Church interpret Zechariah’s muteness as a sign of the end of the age of Old Testament prophecy. The sudden return of his ability to speak is a sign of the arrival of a new “voice.” The “voice” is John, sent to usher in a new age. Later, John will say of himself, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord”’ (Jn 1:23).
The liturgy shows that God’s choice of John’s name before he was even born was prophesied by Isaiah long ago: “The LORD called me from birth; from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” This prophecy, from one of Isaiah’s songs of the Suffering Servant, is usually interpreted as referring to Jesus, who was also named before he was conceived. Here we are applying it to John the Baptist. We can also apply it to ourselves. Each of us can truly say, “The LORD called me from birth; from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.”
How consoling it is to remember that God knows us, that he knows our name – that he knew us long before our parents ever thought of us! This is the beautiful realization for which we praise God in today’s Psalm (Ps 139). God is the one who “knit us together” in our mother’s womb. What God creates is good and wonderful. Each one of us is “fearfully, wonderfully made”!
Parents have a serious responsibility in choosing names for their children. Naming a child is unlike assigning a name to anything else (e.g. a pet or a place), because the child belongs to God first. The name must reflect the love and respect with which God treats each of us. “God calls each one by name. Everyone’s name is sacred. The name is the icon of the person. It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it” (CCC 2158). When we consider the sacredness of each person and each person’s name, we will be careful never to accept demeaning or trivial names or nicknames for our children.
As we reflect with joy on the mystery of being known by God, of being born and named according to his plan, we also remember that this applies to each person we will meet today. Each person is a true reflection of God. Each one is a “John,” sent by the Lord to prepare the way. Each person – if we know how to listen – is a “voice” that speaks to us about God. Each tells us in a unique way that, indeed, “God is gracious!”
In what ways do I express by words or actions that I am 100% pro-life? Do I ever ponder on the words that I am “fearfully, wonderfully made”? Do I know the reason why my parents chose the name I have?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.