Feast Day: June 24th (6 months until Christmas!)
We have so many options for saints to study the bible with this week, but I have chosen our upcoming feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist’s because it directs our attention directly to a scriptural text:
Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. 58 And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother said, “Not so; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your kindred is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all marveled. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea; 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.Luke 1:57
Luke’s theme of God’s mercy, especially for the lowly (remember Mary’s Magnificat, which came just verses prior to the scene we have here), comes to the forefront right off the bat. “The Lord had shown great mercy to her…” Why are we always surprised by God’s mercy? He always shows great mercy. He offers it before we ask, and when we don’t deserve it. But just as the entire people of Israel had to struggle to believe in God’s mercy, so must Elizabeth and Zechariah, and their neighbors and kinsfolk, and so much we. How much easier it is to see God as angry or unhappy: Who stomps off in a huff when we turn our backs on Him? That would be much more like ourselves, but it is not the way that God offers His love again, and again, to His people.
How, here, does God show mercy? It is by the birth of a son for Elizabeth and Zechariah. There is no greater gift that God can give. Here His mercy is bundled up in the little baby John, but God seems to delight in giving His greatest gifts along, and within, the gift of a new human life. He sent salvation in the Christ-child; freedom in the birth of Moses; joy in the gift of Isaac; a nation in the double-gift of Esau and Jacob; and even Eve was drawn out of Adam, as He was created from the dust. It seems that God loves to bring life into barrenness. All His love is summed up in the gift of a child.
But let us return to the rejoicing throng around the home up in the hill country of Judah, for we learn another lesson about God as we watch this scene unfold. We see Elizabeth and Zechariah discerning the name for their son and are prompted away from the traditional names by the Holy Spirit, Who gives them the name “John”. Y’hohanan or Yohanan in Hebrew name meaning “Graced by God” (you can see within it the root Y’, which is an abbreviation of the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton, followed by hanan, meaning “he favored” or “he graced”). The theme of mercy reappears! And praise God, that this name which trumpets His love, remains popular! There are approximately 12 million American men named John with about 100,000 new John’s born to our country every year. (And there are plenty of women named Joan, Johna, Jeanne, Gianna, Joanne, Janet, or Hannah, to name a few female names from the same root.)
One final point. Upon this wondrous naming, after the miraculous birth, we are told that the people feared, marveled, were struck by awe. Do you or I ever let wonder take ahold of us? To wonder at something means you do not understand it, control it, or made it happen. Do we recognize those moments? Do we exult when God’s grace breaks in, or do we miss those moments, or not want to call much attention to it? Is it easier to ignore God’s mercy? Is it simpler to just let those gifts of Love slide by without making much of a fuss?
– Fr. Dominic Rankin is very happy with his first name (and second name, and confirmation name, and last name now that I think about it), but this week he was struck by the power behind the name “John”. Jesus chose John the Baptist as His precursor and forerunner, and John the Apostle as His beloved disciple. Both were entrusted to proclaim His love in a profound way. Both were graced to do it! (But, to clarify, you don’t have to be named John to do that.)