Luke 1:57-66. 80
The time came for Elizabeth to have her child, and she gave birth to a son; and when her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had shown her so great a kindness, they shared her joy.
Now on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother spoke up. ‘No,’ she said ‘he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘But no one in your family has that name’, and made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him to be called. The father asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they were all astonished. At that instant his power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God. All their neighbours were filled with awe and the whole affair was talked about through the hill country of Judaea. All those who heard of it treasured it in their hearts. ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ they wondered. And indeed the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew up and his spirit matured. And he lived out in the wilderness until the day he appeared openly to Israel.
In Shakepeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” Juliet asks “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet is trying to tell Romeo that she loves him, the person, rather than being attracted by his family’s name.
The astonishment of the neighbours when Zechariah agreed with Elizabeth that their child should be called John testifies to the way in which a name was used to connect a person to a family in their society. For some families there can indeed be a lot in a name, as new family members are named after forebears.
The unusual circumstances of John’s conception, when Elizabeth and Zechariah had long given up hope of a child, must have led them to reflect deeply throughout the pregnancy on the child they were to have. When the child was born they knew that they had been chosen to bear and raise a child who belonged in a special way to God. So they named him John which means “graced by God”, rather than naming him in the conventional way, after his father or a relative.
The conferring of a name is an integral part of baptism. While our surname marks us as part of a particular family, the name conferred in baptism identifies us as a particular individual with a unique relationship with God. Our family, local Church and society may be the context in which we live out that relationship with God, but it is always in the end (and especially at the end) an individual relationship for which we have an individual responsibility.
In a sense we are all “Johns”, graced by God, given to a family to raise but with an individual mission to fulfil in building God’s kingdom. That mission may not involve dramatic and traumatic events such as baptising and being beheaded but the elements which were present in John’s mission are also present in ours – praying and preparing, as John did in the wilderness; pointing people towards Jesus, as John did with his contemporaries; and being willing to give all to fulfil our particular mission.