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.” (Lk 1:57-61)
The naming of a newborn is a very intimate activity. Expectant parents will often rummage over the meanings of names in order to select what they will call their child for the rest of its life. Others find the selection easier by using names of grandparents or other loved ones in the naming of their children. Sadly, many parents today select names without proper discernment and consideration. They see their choice as an exercise in personal freedom when they should see it as a duty gifted by God (Gn 2:19). Catholic parents are of course strongly urged by the Church to choose names from the list of saints. Those parents that don’t are still robustly encouraged to raise their baby to be a saint and thus expand the copious category of saintly nomenclature.
The Hebrew root of “John” means “God is Gracious”. This is very important since similarly “Jesus” means “God is Salvation” or “God Saves” and as we know grace and salvation are wholly united. Further, it is the Holy Spirit (working through an angel) that named John (Lk 1:13) and Jesus (Lk 1:31). It is God who gave new names to Abram, Jacob, and Saul. It is God who says: “To the victor I shall give some of the hidden manna; I shall also give a white amulet upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev 2:17). This quotation from the Book of Revelation appears to be a promise of heaven; but it is also a promise already fulfilled in one’s baptismal (and confirmation) name and the reception of the Holy Eucharist.
To proffer imagery for our Gospel “reading of the day” for this Sunday’s Feast of The Nativity of John the Baptist, we have placed on our parish bulletin cover a detail of a work from the great quattrocento painter, Fra Filippo Lippi, entitled The Birth and Naming of John (1465). This work is the epitome of Early Renaissance art: classical architecture, experimentation with spatial depth, reserved and statuesque figures, and an effective use of a new, realistic light. Here we see Elizabeth holding the baby John while Zacharias writes on a tablet “John is his name” (Lk 1:63). A servant or relative stands holding an inkwell for Zacharias to dip his pen. Her stance provides optical altitude creating a diagonal running through the four human figures. While Zacharias and the servant look down in concentration, Elizabeth and John both look away, yet in opposite directions, as if each can see their own future: Elizabeth’s perhaps not very long as she bore John in her older age (Lk 1:18); and John’s cut short by his prophetic mission of announcing the Messiah.
In our consideration, we cannot forget that the high value of a personal name finds its nobility in the Holy Name of God. In the case of the name “Jesus” we have a name that all persons, be they in heaven or hell, will in the end come to revere (Phil 2:9-10).
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services