("Zechariah Writes Down the Name of his Son," by Domenico Ghirlandaio, from the Icons and Imagery blog)
(This post originally appeared in Speaking to the Soul, Sunday, December 4, 2011)
Readings for Sunday, December 4, 2011:
Psalm 148, 149, 150 (Morning)
Psalm 114, 115 (Evening)
1 Thessalonians 5-11
Luke 1:57-68 (NRSV):
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them."
One of the more interesting parts of running a hospital laboratory has to be the variety of names attached to the various specimens and samples. Sometimes I can roughly guess the age of the person by their name. It's a safe bet that someone named Pearl is likely to be Medicare-aged. The name Tab is a dead giveaway that the patient was probably born sometime in the late 50's or early 60's, and a person named Karma is apt to have been born around 1969. There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but it's a fun work pastime.
Then there are those names that I can't help but think, "You named your kid THAT?" In my career, I've encountered a woman named Velveeta, a whole family where all the boys were named Otis, and enough unusual spellings of common names it sounds like a sci-fi convention.
The Bible, it seems, has an unusually high number of stories where the story revolves around something or someone being named--whether it's the initial naming, or people who get a "new" name once some dramatic thing has happened to them. Our Gospel reading is one of those stories. What strikes me in this story is that it is clear Elizabeth knows what the name of this child will be; yet well-meaning friends and relatives keep telling her otherwise.
It does seem a little odd that they want to name the child Zechariah--generally, modern Ashkenazic Jewish custom disapproves on naming children after living relatives--a long standing superstition suggests it will either invite ill health to the elder relative. At the very least, if the elder relative misbehaves, the child's name is stained by it. However, Sephardic Jews don't follow that custom, so the significance of this is uncertain. (Or is this part of the story signifying that when Zechariah could no longer speak to God in the temple, he was "dead" in some way?)
Once again, we are shown the power that exists in the act of naming. Nothing in life is more disquieting than uncertainty. But when we know the names of things, we begin to deal with them. People go in for biopsies and don't know "what's wrong with them." When I examine tissues and make a diagnosis--give it a name--even if the name is attached to a bad diagnosis, the person with the illness at least "knows what they have," and can begin to move to a place of completion with it.
Imagine Elizabeth's frustration in that she knows what this baby's name should be. She knows the "diagnosis," and everyone is telling her otherwise. How many times have we been stuck in situations where we have a name for what is going on, or we know what our feelings are about it, but everyone else tells us otherwise, or chooses to assign feelings to us, or project their own stuff on us?
The other striking thing in this story is that Zechariah is the only one who believes in what Elizabeth is saying, and even though he cannot speak, he writes "His name is John" in support of her position. One can imagine poor Zechariah, wildly gesticulating for someone to bring something for him to write with and upon, looking like he's having a seizure--even pounding the tablet with his finger for emphasis and glaring at everyone.
When Zechariah does this, a miracle occurs--his muteness is removed from him. It's a reminder that believing--and acting--on another's conviction has the power to free us from our own paralyses of speech.
As we ponder this story during Advent, in the light of our own stories, where are the places that we know the names of things but others keep telling us otherwise? Where are the places we need to believe in the convictions of those we love even if it seems we have been struck mute?