Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.”—Luke 1:57-66
There is power in a name. I am learning this over and over here in Zambia. Names connect you to your lineage, your ancestors. Names carry spiritual meaning. Names identify you as belonging to a certain group of people. There is thus always the possibility of feeling instant kinship with somebody you have never met, because your name says you are from the same place or the same tribe or the same family.
It seems that such was also the case for the Hebrews at the time of John’s birth. His naming was of extreme importance, all the more so because his conception and birth had been auspicious, even miraculous. All of the kinspeople of Elizabeth and Zechariah insisted that the baby also be named Zechariah. When Elizabeth said it would be John, they said, “None of your relatives has this name.” They thought she was joking or that she was out of her mind. Surely Zechariah would have more sense. He wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed.
They were not amazed that Zechariah then was miraculously healed of his muteness. That comes afterwards. They were amazed that he agreed with Elizabeth and was choosing to forsake the passing on of his own name. I am sure that they were also horrified. This baby was their nephew, their cousin, their grandchild, one of their own. He was part of the family. He was special. And his parents were willfully choosing to separate him, to set him aside. How would people know to whom he belonged? How would people know if they were related? How would this baby live life without knowing that feeling of instant kinship with a stranger? To get down to the root of it, how would he ever understand his true identity?
There is, of course, a back story. The angel Gabriel had commanded that the baby be named John. He explained that many would rejoice at his birth and that he would be great in the sight of the Lord. Like Samson he would be set apart and live the life of a nazirite, someone chosen by and dedicated to God. John would indeed live his life set apart from others. He was known as a man of the wilderness who somehow had the anointing and authority to preach the repentance of sins. He was filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. As I have reflected before, he had the deepest of bonds with Jesus. He was absolutely integral to God’s plan and to the coming Kingdom. Zechariah and Elizabeth were aware that all of this would take place, and they embraced it. They dedicated their son to God and named him as God wanted him to
be named, so that he would be known as God’s, not somebody with lineage exclusive to Elizabeth and Zechariah.
As a social worker I wonder at the self psychology of John. I wonder what it meant for him to know from something as basic to his identity as his name that he was different from everybody else. I, along with his kinspeople, wonder if he was missing out on something crucial by not having full association with his ancestors and his living family members. I wonder what identity meant to him. Maybe he spent all those years in the wilderness because he understood himself to be set apart. Maybe he spent all those years in the wilderness because he had to be alone with God, wrestling like Jacob, in order to fully understand who he was and why it had to be that way. I like to think that his family did visit him in the wilderness, that they expanded their ideas of home and belongingness, that his different identity enlarged their own identities. In any case, he came out of the wilderness and prepared the way for the transformation of the very fabric of the world. He figured out his identity at least enough to fulfill his mission.
As we approach the birth of the one whose way he prepared, let us also do the hard work of understanding and embracing the fullness of our identities. Let us be willing to expand our identities to include others. Let us explore the legacies of our names—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let us begin to make new legacies for our names, to do our own part in preparing for the transformation of this world.