In the beginning of the Rite of Baptism the priest or deacon asks the parents a simple question: “What name do you give your child?” The parents respond by naming they chose for the child. In most cases the child will be known by that name for the rest of his or her life. The name becomes in effect the symbol of their identity. In other words, the simple name represents who they are.
This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The Gospel reading recalls the story of his birth and his being named “John.” The events surrounding John’s birth are filled with the presence of God.
You may recall when the angel Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah in the Temple telling him that he and his wife would have a child even in old age, Zechariah was incredulous, he did not believe it. As a result, he was left mute until the child was born. Gabriel had told Zechariah that he should name the child “John” when he was born.
The Gospel passage for today picks up at the time of John’s birth. Since Zechariah was still unable to speak, the neighbors and relatives ask Elizabeth to name the child. She calls him “John.” Those gathered are surprised because they thought he would be named after his father. So they ask Zechariah. He writes on a tablet: “John is his name.” With that Zechariah regained his speech. The family and neighbors are amazed and ask the question: “What, then, will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.”
The people recognized God’s activity in bringing this child into the world. Though they did not know what role he would play in God’s plan, they did recognize he had a role. God’s saving plan was unfolding. He has a mission for this child who was named “John.”
The first reading, from the Book of Isaiah, also has a reference to the naming of a person. In this passage Isaiah is speaking of his life as a prophet. He views his mission in life as coming from God himself. God is the one who called him to be a prophet and has given him direction in life. God has provided him with all he needs to carry out that mission to Israel. God’s presence is so strong and real that Isaiah can say: “The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.” In that simple and beautiful affirmation Isaiah acknowledges that everything he is and all he has in life comes from the God who loves him.
Psalm 139, which serves as the responsorial today, invites us to recognize that same loving God who made us, knows us and loves us. The psalmist writes: “O Lord, you have probed me, and you know me: you know when I sit and when I stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. My journeys and my rest you scrutinize, with all my ways you are familiar. Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.” And we respond: “I praise you for I am wonderfully made.”
God is just as active and present in each of our lives. He gives each of us a mission and has a plan for us. He knows and loves us. He calls us to live the life he has bestowed on us in a way that gives him honor and praise. We do this by seeking what is truly good and by loving him and our neighbor, which can be simple and challenging at the same time. Yet he is the one who gives us strength and is with us all along the journey.
When we strive to know him and his way, he encourages us. He calls us by name. When we sometimes stumble or fall, he is there to lift us up. He calls us by name. He is always present. He is always loving. He always calls us by name.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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