Spirituality of the Readings
What's in a Name?
If you called someone by name, at least in ancient days of the bible, it was thought that you had some power over them. This is why the Jews at certain periods of the Hebrew scriptures (the “Old Testament”) would not speak the name of the Holy One, the being we today so casually refer to as “God,” or, in texting and elsewhere, as OMG. Speaking his name did (and does) seem to make the speaker more powerful than the one who is above all.
Today’s Gospel narrates a wrangle about the naming of John the Baptist, and out of courtesy, I need to go back a few pages in Luke’s story to remind you why. You see, names were important to God also. The Archangel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him the name of his son would be John. Why John? I suppose it was because this name had a Hebrew root that meant, approximately, “Yahweh has shown favor,” an indication of John’s role in salvation history. The angel Gabriel appeared also to Mary, frightening her with an announcement of her holiness and the blessedness of her womb, since she would bear the holiest child of all. The name of that child would be what we know today as “Jesus”—though in the Hebrew and Aramaic, the full name was Yehoshua, or Joshua. It meant, “Yhwh is salvation.”
Gabriel’s appearance to the old man Zechariah was nearly identical to his one to Mary. As you know, the reactions of Mary and Zechariah were also quite similar, except for one important difference. Zechariah knew that he and his wife were both far beyond child-bearing age, and so he actually doubted the word of the Archangel and asked for proof.* Mary was puzzled too, because she was not married and had not known man. She needed an explanation and asked for it. The angel struck Zechariah mute, unable to speak, whereas Mary, because of her humble willingness, was found open to the Holy Spirit, and she conceived.**
Often the Hebrews named the male child on the eighth day, at the time of his circumcision. Neighbors and relatives apparently came along for this, and they were all of the opinion that Zechariah’s child should be named Zechariah, after his father. Ah, but his mother Elizabeth said no! He will be called John, she said. Apparently her husband had found a way to tell her the story of the Archangel and the preordained name. He did have a tablet to write on. (Notice that in the Gospel they had to make signs to talk to him, so he had also been struck deaf as well as mute.) Zechariah writes, in answer to the signs, that “John is his name.” Immediately Zechariah is able to speak again and can hear again, since he was hearing and speaking (and believing) the word of God.
A fascinating story, but what does this mean to us today? I want to suggest that God has a special name for each of us, one he calls us by in the depths of our heart. It is a name that—if we can hear it and speak it with our lives—will make us who we are supposed to be, will make us the carriers of God’s name itself to others.
My last paragraph is a mere addendum to the great story, but if you give thought to it, I suspect the meaning will come home to us.
John Foley, SJ
* His words, after the Archangel had spoken to him, were “How shall I know this?” or, “Prove it.” It was not enough to have “just” the angel’s word.
** Not wishing to be self-serving or commercial, your writer can still say that he has written a musical called Like Winter Waiting that features this contrast between Mary’s response to the angel and Zechariah’s. I wish you could hear it. In fact, I urge you to get it and take time to listen—it might change your whole approach to Christianity! The CD is quite available from OCP. Press here to preview it and maybe order it by mail or on the web!
John Foley, SJ
**From Saint Louis University