Today at mass, we heard the story of the birth of John the Baptist, and it’s a story we’ve heard many times before. John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are told they will be parents in their old age, and while Elizabeth believes, Zechariah laughs. Immediately, Zechariah loses his voice, and he remains without speech for the rest of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. When the baby is born, the people ask what the boy’s name will be, and Elizabeth, prompted by an angel’s message to her husband, says it will be John. This flies in the face of tradition; typically the child would be named after the father, and there’s not a John in the whole family tree, so the people prevail upon Zechariah: what is the boy’s name? Summoning a tablet, he writes, “His name is John,” and so it is. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, what’s in a name? In this case, quite a lot. Naming this baby Zechariah would have been traditional, appropriate, and expected. In doing so, they’d be doing things the way they were always done before. Busting out a new name broke those much-valued traditions, and created a new paradigm for this brand new life, so perhaps it’s not surprising that John’s life took a very different course than that of his peers. He was probably the only kid in his neighborhood to head out to the desert and eat locusts and wild honey. But maybe there’s even more to it. You could make the case that John was the first follower of Jesus, save Mary. It is said that John leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth met an expectant Mary on the road. John recognized Jesus immediately, well before the dove descended, or even the occasion of their own births. You could say they were womb mates. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it!)
And if John was Jesus’ first follower, the odd decision about his name actually may set the tone for the whole new faith perspective and church that they began together. You see, the word Zechariah means ‘the LORD has remembered,’ and it’s a name all about tradition, loyalty and faith. It’s a good name. I want God to remember His promises, mercy, and commitments to us. But when I turn the lens on myself, and think about all of the things God must remember about my life, all the times I failed and fell short, the thought of his exceedingly good memory brings little comfort.
The word John, on the other hand, means ‘God is gracious.’ And grace is something we need now more than ever, it seems, or at least I do. Grace is unmerited and it looks like favor or forgiveness or clarity or wisdom or whatever else we most need. It’s supernatural help, and it comes to us unearned, from the heart of God.
God had to make many specific decisions about those early days of what we would later call Christianity. The determinations about His son’s parents, His hometown, governmental and political realities, culture, and the day and time of His birth, all critical. It would be a mistake to believe that John’s name was any less ordained. When it came time to chart a new course for humanity, God sent His only Son. And when naming the first of His followers, God didn’t do things the way they’d always been done. He didn’t favor tradition or patriarchy. He didn’t look toward the past in remembrance. In those first footprints of our Church, God was sending a message to anyone who had ears to hear. In this fresh breath of His creation, He did something new. God favored grace.
May I strive to do the same.