by Msgr. Joseph Calise
AT A WORKSHOP on Baptism, I heard a presenter make a very simple but profound statement regarding baby names. He said, “Here’s the rule of thumb – a guideline for choosing your child’s name: Your son or daughter will have to live with that name for the rest of his or her life.”
Although most parents seem to agree, I have had some rather strange requests for baby names during my 32 years as a priest. I had one parent who wanted to christen her child with the name “assassin” and thought it should be fine because she was going to use a different language. Another mother wanted to name her child “X.” That’s right – just the letter “X” because she thought it looked classy when people signed their name with an initial and then their middle name. Then there are the ethnic names, “sounds pretty” names, left-over from the ’70s hippie names and the vast array of “I like it” names which will no doubt cause great embarrassment when a freshman homeroom teacher asks, “Is R Ninja Cloverleaf Smith in school today?”
The most well known scene in “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare’s famous love tragedy, is the balcony scene. Juliet speaks to Romeo not realizing he is actually listening and says, “Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
As much as we can understand her bemoaning the fact that it is only because of his name that their love would never be sanctioned, we also understand that their names signify more than names because they identify them as members of families with a long-standing feud. I can certainly identify with this. As a matter of fact, my paternal grandfather would not speak to my mother for four years, precisely the difference in age between my brother and me. The silence was because of a name.
I had an uncle I never met. My mother’s brother, Dante, died from sickness when he was only a teenager in the early 1940s. Sadly, that was not unusual. Since many diseases and their causes had not yet been identified, cures were not yet available. When my brother was born, my father agreed that my mother should name their first-born son after her late brother. My grandfather disagreed. He believed that the first son should always be named for his father’s father. And so, considering himself to have been insulted, he refused to speak to my mother until I was born and named after him. On the surface, names may seem inconsequential, but they often bear a deeper significance.
Today we celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist. His conception was announced by the Angel Gabriel to Zechariah as he served in the temple and to Mary as proof of her own pregnancy. Zechariah was struck mute when he questioned Gabriel’s message. Elizabeth’s conception took place when she was well advanced in age. When Mary went to help Elizabeth, her kinswoman, the child in her womb leaped and proclaimed the presence of Christ in Mary’s womb.
Certainly this was no ordinary child – but the one destined to be him of whom Jesus said, “No one greater has been born of woman.”
Yet, his birth is overshadowed by an argument over his name. Like my grandfather, John’s relatives presumed he would be named for his grandfather, which was the custom of the time. It seems as though they thought Elizabeth was taking advantage of her husband’s inability to speak because they turn to him expecting that he will give the child a name they consider more suitable. To their surprise, Zechariah concurs that, “His name is John,” and his tongue is freed so that he can speak in God’s praise.
In Hebrew, “John” means “God’s grace.” St. Luke begins his Gospel with this account of God’s grace operative in the world even before he tells of the birth of Christ. The process was simple. A messenger appeared (in this case the Angel Gabriel) with a promise from God – a child would be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth who was destined for great things. His name was to be John.
Zechariah doubted and was struck mute, but as soon as the child was born and Zechariah heeded the message of the angel, all was well and the stage was set for proclaiming the coming of Christ.
The message was clear: God keeps His promises. Good things happen for those who await the fulfillment of God’s word. To those who seek knowledge of God’s will, the grace is given to put it into action.
A rose by any other name might smell as sweet. But “John” reminds us that God’s grace is very present in this world and compels us to open our hearts to the promise that One mightier than he was coming. Because God keeps His promises. [hr] Readings for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist:
Ps 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15
Lk 1:57-66, 80[hr]
Msgr. Joseph Calise is the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish, Williamsburg.