An Unexpected Name
Fr. George Smiga
June 24, 2010
Luke 1:57-66, 80
If we are to understand today’s gospel, we have to begin by appreciating why Zechariah can’t speak. Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, and Zechariah is John the Baptist’s father. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah and announces to him that his wife, Elizabeth, is going to bear a son. But Zechariah doubts the angel’s announcement. In response, Gabriel strikes him dumb, unable to speak. This is why, in today’s gospel, Zechariah must ask for a writing tablet in order to communicate with his relatives.
Now the important question is, why did Zechariah doubt the angel’s announcement? The most obvious answer is its very improbability. Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted children their whole lives but Elizabeth had always been barren and now she was beyond the age of childbearing. So, it would be easy to image to why Zechariah doubted the angel when Gabriel announced that, despite her condition and age, Elizabeth was going to become a mother.
But there was a second reason why Zechariah might have doubted Gabriel’s message. It is associated with the name. When Gabriel announced that Zechariah would have a son, the angel also told him that the child’s name would be John. Now names were very important in the ancient world. A name was a way of identifying the very identity of a person. This explains the common practice of giving the firstborn child the name of its father. Sharing the same name was a way of saying that this child would be like the father and would live a life carrying out the profession of the father and providing continuity for the family. So, when the Gabriel told Zechariah that his son was to be named John, the angel was saying to him: “Yes you will have a child, but this child will not be like you. This child will not take on your profession.” Zechariah would have a child, but it would not be the child he expected or even the child he desired. This might be the reason why Zechariah resisted the angel’s words.
We need all of this background, if we are to understand today’s Gospel. In the gospel, John the Baptist is born. With that birth there is no longer any doubt that Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son. But there still is doubt whether they will accept the son that God has given them, embracing that child even though he will be different from the child they expected.
When the time comes to name the child, all the relatives plan to go on as usual. They intend to name the child Zechariah after his father. But Elizabeth objects. “No,” she says, “he will be called John.” In making that statement Elizabeth announces that she is ready, ready to accept the child that God gave her and to do it on God’s terms. This confuses the family. They point out to her, “Look, none of our relatives here has this name.” What they are saying to her is: “If you name him John, he is not going to be like us. He is going to be something different from what we have expected.” But Elizabeth stands her ground. So they make signs to Zechariah to see what name he would give him. He calls for the writing tablet and writes, “John is his name.” He thereby indicates that he, too, is ready, ready to accept this child on God’s terms even though he might have preferred someone else.
When we look at today’s Gospel in this light, it becomes an invitation to us to accept the people in our life—to accept them even if they have developed and changed in ways that we have not anticipated or perhaps not even desired. Perhaps we have a child or a grandchild that truly marches to a different drummer. Perhaps our spouse has develops interests and attitudes that we would never have expected. Perhaps we have a friend who has changed enough that we think he or she warrants a new name.
Now of course there are changes and attitudes that are not acceptable and when they happen we need to resist them. But when people in our lives change in ways that we would simply not prefer, this gospel invites us to be patient and to consider the possibility that God might be working in the life of the other person. Perhaps God is preparing him or her for something that God desires, shaping that person to be someone like John the Baptist, someone who can build God’s kingdom.
It took nine months for Elizabeth and Zechariah to accept the fact that their son would be a John, not a Zechariah. Their example should give us hope that with God’s grace, we can learn to accept qualities in the lives of others which we would not expect or prefer. Such acceptance is important. In many cases it is the only way we can continue to love a spouse, a child, or a friend.