|"John the Baptist - What's in a Name?"|
Homily of June 24, 2001
Father Iomar Daniels
There is a time, in all our lives, when we love to celebrate our birthdays. And then there is a time when we want to forget them. And I haven't quite reached that stage myself. And as a joker once put it, "Birthdays are nice to have, but too many of them will kill a person." Birthdays can also be perceived, unfortunately enough, from a sexist viewpoint. When a man has a birthday, he may take a day off. But when a woman has a birthday, she may take as much as five years off. (I'm only joking there now.)
It is interesting to note then that only three birthdays are celebrated in the Church's liturgical year, that of Jesus at the winter solstice, Mary, the Mother of God on the eighth of September, and John the Baptist just after the 21st of June, the longest day of the year. Jesus' birthday comes in the depths of winter and at a time when light begins to grow. This birthday, the birth of John the Baptist, comes when light begins to decline. So this powerfully symbolizes John the Baptist's mission: "I must decrease. He must increase."
Now, all births are miraculous and a gift from God. And all of us move from the comfort of our mother's womb to the discomfort, I suppose, of the world. And, therefore, it is no wonder that we put up such a struggle and cause our mothers such pain. (And some of us continue to do that throughout our lives.) And all of us move from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world. However, John's birth seems to be exceptional in that his mother was very old and deemed beyond the years for producing children. And John's father, Zachariah, didn't believe that it could happen and, therefore, he lost his gift of speech. And some modern day dads fall dumb when they find out that their spouse is pregnant or that their girl friend is pregnant. And, in Ireland, miraculously enough, some of them disappear altogether.
Now, there was something special about John, even before he was born. He was proclaimed a servant and a prophet and he was to be the link between the Old and the New Testaments. The Prophet Isaiah speaks of him: " I will make you a light to the nations that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth." It is John, as we know, who prepared the way for Jesus by preaching a baptism of repentance. St. Augustine once wrote of him: "John marks the frontier between the Old and the New Testaments." And the Lord speaks of him as a boundary line: "The law and the prophets are valid until John the Baptist." He represents the Old Testament, and at the same time, he introduces us to the New. And, therefore, his mission was very clear, even before he was born.
Now the story of today's gospel reminds me of the story of my own name. And, as children, we like to discover why we were called the name that we have. And my own name, Iomar, is not too common, as you can imagine. It comes from the name of an Irish saint, who was, we believe, a disciple or a spiritual director of another Irish saint, Malachy, who lived in Armagh. And St. Iomar, or at least some of his followers, must have traveled down the west coast of Ireland because there are about three villages called after him, Kiliomar, which, translated from the Irish, means "Church of Iomar." And, growing up, my mother used to dance in a hall called after him, St. Iomar's Hall, in Kiliomar. And, hence, my name. Now, I hope she didn't think I was going to be a Michael Flately of Riverdance fame because she'd be very disappointed.
The naming of someone is a public affair. And, certainly, in today's gospel, the naming of Elizabeth and Zachariah's baby was of great interest to their neighbors and relations and friends. And, of course, in Palestine at that time, there was great rejoicing if a boy was born, but great sadness if a girl was born. And I'm afraid some of that pertains still today in some cultures of our world, and I'm thinking in particular of China at this time. So, in this case, in Elizabeth and Zachariah's case, there was double reason for rejoicing. A boy was born and against all the odds. Now, generally, it is the parents who choose a name for their child. And generally, they don't like outside interference in this. However, in today's gospel, we hear that God had a hand in naming John. And this meant that John was somebody special and that he would have a very special role in the history of our salvation. Incidentally, the name "John" means "God is gracious." And generally the naming of someone gives them a special identity. And, in Biblical times, the changing of someone's name meant a change in their lives. "Abram" became "Abraham," our Father in faith. "Saul" became "Paul" after his great conversion. And religious brothers and sisters, in the past, changed their names when they became fully professed, when they had decided that they would commit their lives to God, to God's work in the future. And, in a sense, we priests lose our names to become "Father" as we begin our ministry. So when Elizabeth and Zachariah named John, as they did, they went against tradition because there was nobody in their family with that name. And, therefore, they initiated great change. It was to break new ground and leave the old behind.
Now, there is great significance in all of this for us today because we are invited through our baptism to a new way of life, a new way of doing things, and to a new commitment. And, firstly, we must begin with ourselves so we could allow the Good News, the Gospel, to take ahold in our lives and to change us into messengers of charity and respect. And that is essentially what we are called to do as Christians.
Secondly, we could recognize our need for metanoia, or a change of heart, because sometimes we need to change our old ways, our old habits, and develop new ones.
And thirdly, we could become a voice for the poor and the marginalized and especially for those who are voiceless in our modern world. John himself was a voice for the Lord, often a voice in the wilderness. And we too will find ourselves being ignored and being pushed aside and our words falling on deaf ears. But we must never give up, even if it means getting our heads snapped off, as John the Baptist did.
And, finally, let us note how John's father received his voice back after doing God's will. And his first words were in praise of God. So we too could be more conscious, in the future, of what we have to say. We could be the voice of good news, rather than bad. We could be the voice of God in the world today. And it was once said that a Christian should learn two things about their tongue, how to hold it and how to use it. So use it well and be a light to the nations. Amen.