Nativity of St John the Baptist
"And as John was completing his course, he would say, 'What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.'" (Acts 13:25)
The issue of naming children can be a complicated business. The birth of a new child into a family unit can give rise to all kinds of suggestions as to the suitability of this or that name. Often there can be intense pressure from one or other family members; especially if another much loved relation has died in the recent past. Those of us who are members of the Church are given at baptism a saint's name, a link and a sign of belonging to that community on earth and in heaven.
However there is always the indisputable fact that our names are given to us, not chosen. If you like your parents choice all is well, you can live with what you are called, but sometimes people resent and rebel against the perception that they have no choice about who they are, it becomes a burden, so they change, alter their names to suit their own purpose, and I have to admit that quite often they are right to do so.
After my mother's death I found a letter from my paternal Grandmother saying how pleased she was that I had been called Robert, "a family name " she wrote; "and Philip which will please your family ", as it was the name of my mother's father. I don't mind my names at all and over the years I have discovered some inner connection to my patron saints and I like the diminutive form of Robin which I also use. But perhaps I am lucky. Somehow my names seem suited to me and I accepted them as my own choice.
John the Baptist's naming was different, the assumption was that he would inherit his fathers name. In Luke's story we see members of the family group arguing with Elizabeth about her choice of John. It is true that the Hebrew name simply means, YHWH has shown favour, has been gracious. One can see that in the gift of John to the elderly Elizabeth and Zechariah, but there is a twist. As Zechariah prayed what we call his canticle, he said: "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways," (Lk1:76)
If he had been given his father's name, then his way would have been different. He would have become a hereditary priest bound to a different life of service. So inspired by God's message, both Elizabeth and her husband recognise that their son is called to another route, that of the Prophet who will prepare the way of the Messiah.
Their obedience to God's call and John's life as the herald of Christ reflect our own calling. We like them, need to recognise the call of God and help others discern it. Like John we too are heralds, prophets and pointers of the way, helping prepare others for the daily and also that final coming of Christ to our world. We reveal the gracious favour of God for others!
The ancient Office hymn Ut Quaent Laxis for Lauds and Vespers of the feast. The translation follows the ancient rhythm and the first verse in Latin provides us with our musical Do (Ut) Re Mi.
Ut queant laxis
For thy spirit, holy John, to chasten
Lips sin-polluted, fettered tongues to loosen;
So by thy children might thy deeds of wonder
Meetly be chanted.
Lo! a swift herald, from the skies descending,
Bears to thy father promise of thy greatness;
How he shall name thee, what thy future story,
Scarcely believing message so transcendent,
Him for a season power of speech forsaketh,
Till, at thy wondrous birth, again returneth
Voice to the voiceless.
The heavenly citizens celebrate you
with lauds, one God and at once triune;
we also come imploring forgiveness;
spare us among the redeemed.
Thou, in thy mother's womb all darkly cradled,
Knewest thy Monarch, biding in His chamber,
Whence the two parents, through their children's merits,
Praise to the Father, to the Son begotten,
And to the Spirit, equal power. possessing,
One God whose glory, through the lapse of ages,
Fr Robin Gibbons is an Eastern Rite Catholic Chaplain for the Melkites in the UK. He is also an Ecumenical Canon of Christ Church Oxford