John’s name captures his lifework

When people see a newborn for the first time it is almost inevitable that there is a lot of “oohing” and “aahing.” This week the church interrupts the cycle of Ordinary Time to celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist. John certainly has a special place in our Christian tradition; in the readings we have an opportunity to look at that unique place and to wonder at God’s careful working out of the plan of salvation.

We get John’s story in bits and pieces in Luke and the other Gospels. As part of the infancy narrative in Luke we discover that John’s birth has many wondrous events surrounding it. His father learns of the birth in a vision while he is on temple duty. This is amazing, for Zechariah and his wife are well beyond child bearing age. Zechariah is caught up in the natural rather than the supernatural so he doubts. In his misgivings, he is struck dumb and will not speak again until the naming of the baby. We immediately understand that this baby will be special.

When Mary visits Elizabeth, the two women share their precious secrets with each other. Elizabeth, an elder woman, and Mary, a young virgin, share a common experience of impending motherhood. The birth of the two children is embedded in the miraculous. Naturally speaking, neither woman should be pregnant, but they rejoice in their pregnancies and share this joy with each other.

The newness of these happenings is indicated in the naming of the children. Mary had been told her child’s name by the angel. When it comes time for Elizabeth and Zechariah to name their new son the naming defies all tradition. Elizabeth tells the assembled friends and relatives that the baby will be named John. The crowd objects since no one in the family has been named John. Zechariah backs up his wife’s choice and writes, “His name is John.” In ancient times naming was very serious business because the name indicated what kind of person the child would be. The name “John” means that God will be gracious or has shown favor. The baby’s name summarizes all the wonderful events surrounding his birth.

Finally, Zechariah utters a prayer in which he says, “You my child shall be called the prophet of the Most High.” John’s whole lifework is captured in his name. As a prophet he will announce the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. He will prepare the people for this coming by his baptism of forgiveness of sins. He will be one of the first to understand that Jesus is the one who saves the people.
For all of these reasons we can indeed “ooh” and “aah” at the birth of this baby. All babies are a promise of the future. In the case of John, the future is manifested by the inbreaking of salvation, not only for the chosen people, but for all humanity.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.