Don Fabio’s reflection follows the Gospel reading . . .
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Kieran’s summary . . . This Sunday we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. His relatives want to give him the name of his father, Zechariah, but Elizabeth insists that he be given the new name indicated by the angel. This is a name that has never before occurred in the family. We see here that God is doing something new. And he wishes to do something new in your life as well. If we are to be open to his redeeming activity, we must stop being fixated with the “old names” and be receptive to the Lord’s grace in the present moment. There is an interplay of names in this Gospel passage. “Zechariah” means “God remembers the past” whilst “John” means “God bestows his grace now”. The whole event of the naming of John the Baptist is filled with symbolism which indicates that the Lord is doing something dramatically new. And he wishes to do the same new things in our lives too! Actually, it is not so much that he does new things as he makes all things new. It is important that we remember, respect and heal the past, but all of this process must be directed towards being receptive to the saving work of God in my life in this very moment.
The relatives of Zechariah want to name the new baby after their father. But God wants to give this child a new name. Something new is happening. And if we are to open ourselves to the action of God in our lives, then we too must be open to inbreaking of God
This Sunday we celebrate the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist. The time has come for the birth of Elizabeth’s son and the end of her shame. The theme of the passage that we read on Sunday is very much centred on the issue of naming the child. The relatives want to call the child after his father, Zechariah. However Zechariah is unable to speak because he has been punished for his unbelief in the words spoken to him by the angel. He is unable to express himself, but Elizabeth insists that the child be called John, even though no-one in the family had this name. Already this is sufficient for our theme! The fact that a new name is being given is an indication that the plan of God is beginning to come into operation. With the birth of John the Baptist, the New Testament commences. Something new is under way, and that is how it is for anyone who wishes to seriously follow the Lord Jesus. Names must be changed. Things must be different than how they were previously in the family. The fact is that all of us have familial rituals that demand obedience, things that must be done in the same old way that they have always be done. But no! We can change the name of things, and if we don’t change them then they will always stay the same. If we do not change our horizons then we will end up going around continually in the same old circles. The Lord Jesus must come and he sends his precursor ahead of him; this is the sign of a development that will alter the course of history. If redemption is to come to my door, then I cannot go on the same old way as before, with the same system of thinking as previously. The name of things must be changed and it can no longer be the old name used in the family.
There is an interplay of names in this passage. “Zechariah” means “God remembers the past”, whilst “John” means “God bestows grace now”. We are called to respect the past, but we do so in a way that is totally oriented to opening our hearts to God’s activity in the present.
The family want to call the child by the father’s name, but Zechariah calls for a means of writing and lets it be known that his name shall be John. As soon as he shows this obedience to the words of the angel, his tongue is loosened. Zechariah has understood that his own name will not be given to this son, and that something greater than his narrow interests has begun to take place. Let us look at the situation a little more closely. There is an interplay here between the two names. Zechariah means “God remembers the past”. Remembering is the theme of the liturgy. Liturgy helps to preserve the memory of the history of Israel. The Passover is the act of remembering the event of liberation. This glorious past is something that must not be forgotten. It often seems the parameter by which our present must be interpreted. But no! This is not the full story at all! The name John means “God bestows grace upon us now”. God at this moment is responding to us with grace. Thus in the interplay of these two names, we make a transition from the past to the present. God is doing something new. As the second letter to the Corinthians states, we no longer need to think of the things of the past. Whoever is in Christ is a new creation. As St Paul says in another place, “I no longer look to the past but I race to the future towards the goal that is set before me”. In other words, we cannot open ourselves to the redemption until we open our hearts and look at what God is doing in our hearts right now. It is not exactly that God needs to do new things: rather, God makes all things new. He gives a new sound, a new heart, a new taste to all of reality. So we should stop thinking that all the great events have already happened. Some people think that the first or second century was when all the significant things occurred, but the century with the greatest number of martyrs was the most recent one! The time in which God is operating is right now! Christians must always live in the present. As Jesus says, do not anguish yourselves about tomorrow, what we will eat or drink or wear; it is the pagans who worry about these things. As Jesus says in the Gospel of St John, he who is born of the Spirit, hears his voice, like the wind, but he does not know where it comes from. We must root ourselves in the God who bestows grace now in unexpected ways. Memory is something very important. It must be cared for and healed. But all of this should be directed at opening our hearts to the activity of God in this moment.
When we are in the process of discernment, we must not be burdened with the expectations of others or the events of the past. Let us open ourselves to the grace of God in this present moment.
With John the Baptist, the activity of God begins. A child is born, something new begins. Often, when a child is born, we have to hope that the aspirations of parents and relatives will allow this child to be himself; that the family will allow him to live his own life instead of living theirs. When young people are trying to discern what to do with their lives, it is very important to relieve them of this burden of the expectations of others. We have to let them know that their name is John and not Zechariah; that God does new things; that God can bring redemption no matter what errors they have made in their lives; that the Lord can make a sterile woman give birth and open the mouth of the dumb, as we see in this Gospel. We can be confident that the Lord bestows his grace now. Let us open ourselves to the grace of God in this present moment.