Reading: Lk 1:57-66, 80
It might as well be Advent because this reading from Luke’s gospel about the birth of John the Baptist is pregnant with two important features that foreshadow the story of Jesus’ birth. Elizabeth is barren and can’t have a child in her old age so when an angel tells her husband, Zechariah, that she will give birth to a son he is muted and made deaf after questioning the angel. The story picks up here when Elizabeth gives birth to this new son, the one who is to make clear the path before Jesus.
If you haven’t noticed, our culture is filled with milestone celebrations: birthdays, engagement parties, wedding showers, and of course baby showers. These events give way to joy among friends, family, and neighbours. After Elizabeth gave birth to her new son we see word spread. “Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.” There should really be an exclamation mark at the end of that verse. It’s time for a baby shower! Not only has Elizabeth miraculously given birth, but John’s birth signals a the new Messianic age to come with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
We cannot escape the emotion and joy filling the scene at John’s birth. This also foreshadows the natural joy expected at Jesus’ birth on Christmas morning. For those who have contemplated and prayed with the Christmas scene, you know the kind of joy experienced by Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and kings. God is born! The birth of John the Baptist fulfils his role of pointing the way to Jesus. The joy surrounding his birth points to the joy that is yet to come with the birth of the God child. These two nativity scenes ought to remind us (from the beginning of the story) that Christianity is a joyful religion.
But there’s some awkwardness here when Elizabeth and Zechariah insist on calling the baby John. Names are very important. If you’ve brought in a stray puppy and named it you’re attached. Names have great significance. Parents spend loads of time looking through baby name books and discussing options for their child’s name. In Elizabeth and Zechariah’s time sons were normally named after their grandfathers. This is called paponymy. So it was odd in the first place that there seemed to be an initial plan to name the baby after his father. It’s taken even further with the parents’ insistence on naming him John. This breaks the priestly succession that would be had by using the name Zechariah. Theologically, this could indicate that the true priest will end up being Jesus.
In Jesus’ nativity story we find name to also be important. In Luke we witness an angel telling Mary that she will bear a son and name him Jesus. In Matthew the angel also tells Joseph in a dream to name him Jesus and then quotes the prophet Isaiah, “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.'” The name given to Jesus has rich meaning. Indeed, it gives us reason to rejoice and to reverence. As Paul said,
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Like John the Baptist’s birth, every birth ought to remind us of the birth of Jesus and the joy of that great event as well as the significance of God giving him a name. God gives each of us a name, not just a title like John or Sarah or Andy, but a name that gives us purpose and direction. Let us rejoice in our own story of birth and naming and purpose.
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