JUNE 24, 2003

HIS NAME IS JOHN.  THE NAMING OF A CHILD IS NO INSIGNIFICANT MATTER; THE NAME A PERSON BEARS IN FACT EXERTS A CERTAIN INFLUENCE FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE.  AS OFTEN AS IT IS EMPLOYED IN THE COURSE OF HIS LIFE THE NAME HAS A SUBTLE POWER TO EVOKE THE PERSON HIMSELF. In our own times all too often a child is given a name simply because it sounds pleasing or is fashionable. In the Biblical world names were commonly considered to be indicators of the person’s destiny and character. Accordingly, choosing a name for an infant was taken to be a significant duty affecting the child’s future.   When Jesus was conceived the name he was to bear was announced by an angel. John the Baptist also received his name from God through the mediation of an angel; his mother and father did not themselves select his name; their role was to confirm the divine appellation in an act of faith. 

The name John means in Hebrew God is gracious. The birth of John  is an appearance of the merciful kindness of God, calling his people to repentance. His graciousness consists in sending John as a holy prophet to prepare the people of God to receive the promise of eternal life brought by his incarnate son when he came in the flesh.  Every one who came into contact with this man specially designated by God from the womb of his mother, seems to have felt he was different than others. From his conception he was thought to be especially marked out by God in a way that set him apart.  Knowing his particular calling to serve God’s plan his parents treated him even as a child as belonging more to his Creator than to them.  He fully accepted his vocation and so, while still young, in keeping with the directives announced by the angel to Zecharaia his father, he prepared himself by a life of discipline and self denial. He later left his home and his town to take up his abode in the desert. When his public life commenced he spoke about God and as a prophet spoke for God in a voice that was persuasive. The people believed him   because he had a particular relation to God; he was a holy man.  His words came from beyond this world people felt as they heard him speak and so many believed in him. 

Without realizing it some of his disciples were preparing themselves for a still higher vocation as they followed John’ s teaching and example. When Jesus came after John’s ministry was well advanced, he chose his first followers from the group formed by the Baptist, as John came to be called. If Peter, Andrew, James and John so promptly left their family and their boats and nets when Jesus called them, they responded so readily because of the training they had received from John the Baptist.  

That this man of God deserved his reputation as a holy man who spoke in God’s name was made clear by Jesus himself after he had begun his ministry.  When John was in  prison because he had so fearlessly denounced the immorality of Herod, he sent a delegation of disciples to the Lord to inquire as to the meaning of his appearance. Are you the Christ sent by God? he asked. After declaring to them that he is indeed the chosen anointed of God, Jesus went on to praise John himself.  ‘A greater than John has never been seen’, he said. But then he went on to complete his statement by adding that ‘yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.( Matthew 11:11)’  What the Lord  affirms here is that John’s work and person is introductory; he is the one chosen to prepare the way. Jesus himself inaugurates the kingdom of God by his appearance and teaching. In doing so he creates a new order, the definitive realization of God’s plan begins with the life and work of Jesus. Entry into this new order  establishes a fresh, more immediate relationship to God because it unites the believer with the Son of God and so creates a higher holiness than that which John knew. This holiness is the fruit of Jesus‘ death and resurrection; it derives from the gift of the Spirit of God himself. 

As consoling as these words of Jesus are for us who have been given this greatest of all gifts of the Holy Spirit, they also remind us that our responsibility to witness to this favor of God by lives worthy  of such a calling. We are keenly aware of how far beyond our powers such holiness of life remain for us who are sinners.  But here as we offer this Eucharist and receive the Lord Jesus himself in communion we are given a pledge that the favor of God is not only manifested in John’s birth and life, it is ours as well. His Spirit is our strength and will not be lacking to us. For we too have received God’s favor through the birth and resurrection of his Son Jesus who unites us with himself to make us children of the kingdom and heirs of his Father and ours.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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