Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours 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 neighbours, 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
A familiar part of the Christmas (or Advent) story is that of Elizabeth and Zechariah, two righteous people who kept the laws of God but who had never had children. Surely the neighbors must have wondered what one or the other of them had done that God would withhold that blessing from them, but knowing the couple as they did, the question probably never came up (or very often, at any rate), at least in their hearing.
Zechariah did make one error, though, although I can’t think of many people who wouldn’t do precisely the same thing, given the circumstances. During his regular duty of offering incense at the altar, he was shocked to see an angel standing on the right side, something so unexpected that it was no wonder he was shocked and fearful. Who wouldn’t be? Angels don’t just pop up everywhere and every day. Still, the angel told him not to be afraid because God had heard Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child. It was going to be a boy (doubly a blessing) and that the parents should name him John. There were more reassuring words about how the child would grow up filled with the Holy Spirit which would be present in him from the time of his conception forward. He would bring many back to God and cause many others to repent and be washed clean. In short, John had a mission to fulfill.
Poor Zechariah, it must have been almost too much to take in, especially given that he and his wife were long past their youth or even middle years. The angel, Gabriel (who happened to be the same one to visit Elizabeth’s cousin Mary a few months later), gave Zechariah a sign that what he had heard was the truth. For the next nine months, Zechariah would not be able to utter a word or syllable, or even a sound. He finished his shift at the temple and went home.
It didn’t take long for Elizabeth to conceive. For five months, she remained in seclusion, probably until her abdomen began to swell with the new life within it. She praised God, giving thanks for the new life within her and also for the shame and disgrace she had experienced over the years as a barren woman. In her sixth month, Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin, came to visit following her own visitation with Gabriel. The two women probably had a lot to talk about over the next three months, as Mary probably stayed until Elizabeth safely delivered her son, to the joy and rejoicing of all the neighbors and relatives.
Jewish custom required that a male child be circumcised on his eighth day after birth. Everyone seemed to think the baby should be named Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth told them that the child’s name would be John. What a kerfluffle that made! Children were usually named after their father or at least a deceased relative so that the child would carry on the name, but there was no one called Yochanan in the family so why would they name him “Jehovah has been gracious” or “has shown great favor” (the meanings of the name in Hebrew)? Indeed, Elizabeth and Zechariah had been blessed by God’s grace, having a baby in their old age, and it was a sign of great favor, but would that be reason enough to change tradition? While the neighbors talked to Elizabeth and received her answer, they still weren’t satisfied.
They approached Zechariah, still mute after all these months, and motioned to him to get his response about this unusual naming. Funny, they could have asked him – nothing is ever said about his being deaf, only mute. Still, he motioned for something to write on and, in his own hand, confirmed the name Gabriel had told him to give the child. From that moment, his tongue was functional and he began to praise God for the miracles he had experienced. That stirred up the neighbors because word quickly spread throughout the whole hill country of Judea about this miracle child. And John did go on to become a very well-known figure in Scripture.
Parents today are pretty much free to name their child anything that appeals to them, whether or not there is a family connection or there even seems to be much sense in the name (Moon Unit? True? Prince? Jezebel?). Names in antiquity usually were given to honor specific gods, carry on a family name, or use a Biblical name or virtue. The names frequently had meanings in their original tongues which carried a message beyond just having a handle to call a child in from play. I confess I didn’t think of “Jehovah has been gracious” when I named my son and only thought of the name of a family friend for his second name. Still, God was gracious in giving me a child who has become a fine man.
God gave both Zechariah and Mary names to give their children. Yochanan and Yeshua bore names that had specific meanings that would be understood by anyone understanding Hebrew. That reminds me that I should perhaps take a look at some of the names of the Bible and see what their meaning was. Maybe I might gain some new insight into their character or mission in life or something else important.
Next week we celebrate the birth of Yeshua, “God is salvation.” We call him “Emmanuel” (God with us), or one of the names we have heard in the O antiphons this past week (in Latin). By whatever name we call him, we rejoice at his birth and want to share it with the whole world.
Come, let us adore him, the Grace of God given to all humankind for all ages, the salvation of God for all as well, and the joy of heaven come down to earth.
Merry Christmas and God Bless.
Image: Nativity of John the Baptist, 5 c, Hermitage/ Рождество Иоанна Предтечи. Found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. Her domestic fur-kids, Dominic, Gandhi, and Phoebe, keep her company and often quite amused.