What's in a God-Given Name?

In our scripture reading, we find that John is given a “special name by God.” In Hebrew, it means “graced by God,” and is thus a fitting name of John, given his mission is to point out the long-awaited Savior! Zacharias’s name means “God remembers his covenant” (which is ironic, in that Zacharias didn’t remember it very well himself at the beginning). Elizabeth means “God is the absolutely faithful One.” And, of course, Jesus’ name means “God saves” or “the divine Savior.”

Image by Benjamin Balazs

What's in a God-Given Name?

By Tim Trainor

Isaiah 49:1-6
Acts 13:22-26
Luke 1:57-66, 80

Why does the Church celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist? John is the last of all the prophets. Not only his message but his life itself proclaims the coming of Christ. John the Baptist’s mission in life, the purpose of his God-given existence, was to prepare the way of the Lord and say: “Behold, the Lamb of God!” I think that John the Baptist’s joyful leap in his mother’s womb also reveals what God desires for all of us: to be transformed by the presence of Jesus and Mary!

In the Catholic Catechism, in paragraph 720 we find the following: “With John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit begins the restoration to man of ‘the divine likeness,’ prefiguring what he would achieve with and in Christ.”

How the Holy Spirit might be planning on going about this “to be accomplished restoration work” in each of us?

This Saturday, when the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist, you may be asking yourself: “What is so important about John the Baptist that we honor his nativity, that is, the day of his birth?” I know that we honor Jesus’ birth at Christmas, but why John the Baptist, why his nativity?

Remember that Jesus said: “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). Jesus honored John above all other men.

Also, in paragraph 719 of the Catholic Catechism, “John the Baptist is 'more than a prophet.'“ In him, the Holy Spirit concludes His speaking through all the Old Testament prophets. John completes the cycle of prophets begun by Elijah. He proclaims the imminence of the consolation of Israel; he [John] is the 'voice' of the Consoler [Jesus] who is coming. As the Spirit of truth will also do, John 'came to bear witness to the light.' In John’s sight, the Spirit thus brings to completion the careful searchings of the prophets and fulfills the longing of the angels.' He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God . . . Behold, the Lamb of God.”

And lastly, in para. 523: “John is the Lord's immediate precursor or forerunner, sent to prepare His way. 'Prophet of the Most High,’ John surpasses all the prophets, of whom he is the last. He inaugurates the Gospel, [the good news] already from his mother's womb, welcomes the coming of Christ, and rejoices in being 'the friend of the bridegroom,’ whom he points out as 'the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ Going before Jesus 'in the spirit and power of Elijah,’ John bears witness to Christ in his preaching, by his Baptism of conversion, and through his martyrdom.”

The Church finds it fitting that we honor his nativity too. Why was John being given a special Name?

Per the Catechism: A “name” expresses a person's essence and identity and the meaning of this person's life. God has a name; he is not an anonymous force. To disclose one's name is to make oneself known to others; in a way, it is to hand oneself over [as God did] to becoming accessible, capable of being known more intimately and addressed/talked to personally.     

I call this one of “God-given name” and the essence of one’s “mission.” 

In our scripture reading, we find that John is given a “special name by God.” In Hebrew, it means “graced by God,” and is thus a fitting name of John, given his mission is to point out the long-awaited Savior! Zacharias’s name means “God remembers his covenant” (which is ironic, in that Zacharias didn’t remember it very well himself at the beginning). Elizabeth means “God is the absolutely faithful One.” And, of course, Jesus’ name means “God saves” or “the divine Savior.”

I believe that there are three general lessons that we can draw from today's gospel reading:

1. Like John, we were also born with a purpose. We each have our own special “mission” in life which was given to us from birth. Part of our mission is to prayerfully find out exactly what this mission is. But as believers, we all commonly share in the mission of John – that is, to prepare the way for others to find Christ. By becoming light, we make the paths of others easier to follow in their journey toward the Kingdom. But woe to us, however, if we become a stumbling block for them instead.

2. Like John, we did not choose our parents or even our names. There is an old saying that goes: “What we are is our gift from God and our parents; what we become is our gift back to them.”

3. Like John, we all have our weaknesses and so we need to be “graced by God” as John was. We need the guidance of the Spirit for us to accomplish our mission. We need to constantly ask for strength through prayer. Like John, we should find time to go into the “desert” to be in communion with our creator [like attending a retreat] because “apart from Him, we can do nothing” (see John 15:5).

Have you ever reflected upon the meaning of your own name and what mission God has given to you in this life?

Saint Augustine, in this Sunday’s Office of Readings, explains that “the silence of Zechariah is nothing but the age of prophecy lying hidden, obscured, as it were, and concealed before the preaching of Christ.” Later in the same sermon, Saint Augustine expounds on the distinction between Jesus and His cousin: “The voice is John, but the Lord ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word [on the other hand] is eternal.”

Augustine says: “But if the voice must decrease, so that the Word may increase, what can be said of Zechariah? He is not even a voice, but silence: the silence in which the Voice is conceived and a silence which you and I, as sinners, must enter. The silence illustrated by Zechariah is born of unbelief. Every sinner is called into this silence. Most of our fallen world is a modern Tower of Babel. We are unfaithful to God’s Word because we cannot hear it for the noise of the world. We are among those of whom the Beloved Disciple writes in the prologue to his Gospel account: “the Word came to His own, and His own people received Him not” (John 1:11). Because it’s always so in this valley of tears, God calls fallen man into silence so that there we might recognize our sins, and hear and heed God’s Word”.

The silence of Zechariah is also written about later on by St. John of the Cross. He said: “What we need most in order to make [spiritual] progress is to be silent before this great God, with our appetites and our tongue.”

So, this 'Holy Silence' that Saints Agustine and John of the Cross speak of may be something for each of us to consider letting come over us. As out of it came John's God-given name, plus the start of his mission!

In the Psalm for today, the truth is that John the Baptist wasn't the only person that the Lord knew intimately before He forms his in the womb. We can all exclaim with the words of today’s Psalm, “Truly You have formed by inmost being; You knit me in my mother’s womb!” None of us is just a number, a census statistic, just a random biological happening to God. Just like John the Baptist had a vocation and a mission from before he was born, each of us is formed by God, perhaps with a divine 'God-given name,' but for sure with a divine destiny. Plus, given a vocation/mission too! While there will be specific differences between my mission and yours and John’s, there will be several characteristics, however, in common. Below is a summary of these common mission characteristics each of us has:

Like John’s, our mission is given by God as part of God’s plan for us from the beginning, that is: in the womb!

Like John, the Lord fills us with the Holy Spirit at our baptism to help us accomplish this mission.

Like John, we are called to recognize who God is, that He is so great and holy that none of us is worthy to loosen the straps of His sandals. This recognition makes the Lord’s desire to stoop down and wash our feet even more mind-blowing (see John 13:5).

Like John, we recognize that we’re not the Messiah, and certianly not  God, which means that we, like John, recognize that we don’t call the shots, God does! We need to not only trust in His will by, not just saying, but actually meaning, “thy will be done”, not mine when we say the Lords Prayer!

Like John, we need to make straight the paths for God to rule in our life. For John, that meant going out into the desert to pray, fasting on locusts and wild honey, dressing in a way that symbolized his interior repentance and reparation. For us, perhaps it means experincing a 'Holy Silence' by going away from our distractions for: pray, fasting and penitence.

Like John, after we’re living a converted life, we are called to summon others to conversion as John did at the Jordan River.

Like John, we’re called on to decrease so that Christ may increase in our life, by growing each day, in humility.

Like John, we’re called to point others to the Lamb of God. John did it when he saw Jesus at the Jordan. We’re called to do it by pointing people to Jesus in the Eucharist, pointing to Him taking away our sins in the confessional, and, by pointing to Him speaking to us in the pages of Sacred Scripture.

No matter what our state of life or age, each of us, I believe, is called to imitate John the Baptist in these and other areas. That, I believe, is God’s calling and part of the mission for each one of us to do.

I conclude by asking John the Baptist, on his birthday, and Jesus for their help, perhaps in the form of a 'Holy Silence,’ so that we, like John, might develop our friendship with God and learn our God-given name so that He [Jesus] may increase within each of us; and, bring us to the eternal destiny for which we, like John, were born. And thereby,  perform the witness that was designed for each of us to bare, from our birth to our neighbors just as John did. What say you?

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