Today, as we’re waiting for Christmas, as we know the day and the Lord are both close – our first reading foretells the coming of the Lord by saying that God sends a “messenger,” a prophet, to prepare the way. Today’s Psalm tells us to look up, look ahead – Christ is coming. Then today’s happy Gospel passage, a continuation of Luke’s background story about the Savior’s birth, is about the slightly earlier birth of the cousin who will grow up to be John the Baptist.
Already in this first chapter, we have read of the Visitation, when, newly pregnant, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, whose somewhat earlier pregnancy is a sign of God’s power. Elizabeth and her unborn child recognize that Mary’s baby is the Lord. From these Gospel details Christians have liked to infer a friendship between the babies. Thus we have those many medieval and Renaissance paintings of the Madonna with two chubby little boys, with the child John reverencing the infant Jesus. Our Joslyn Art Museum here in Omaha has one particularly fine painting of this image. Its colors and composition are beautiful; the sweet-faced Mother is lovely, but the two children are, frankly, not handsome. While admiring the painting as a whole, my husband and I have amused ourselves by giving it our own title: “Baby Jesus and His Cousin John Prophesy that Neither Will Win the Prettiest Baby Prize.”
Meanwhile, in today’s Gospel about this cousin’s birth, Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah both declare that his name is John. How do they know that this apparently unlikely name is what God wants for their baby? And another sign: Zechariah’s speech is restored; the people recognize this as a sign that the child is destined to do something great. As Christians, we know he will “prepare the way of the Lord” -- as messenger, prophet, forerunner and Baptist.
The name John is popular today – John for us, and Giovanni,
Johann, Juan, Jean, etc, etc. in many other languages – and
some Johns may be named for John the Baptist, but others for other
saints, family members, many other reasons. It must have many meanings.
In our 21st century American culture, the lowercase noun “john”
is a colloquialism with several distinct meanings, all with low
or vulgar connotations. Capitalized, it is also used to mean various
things – for examples, a John Hancock is a signature; a John
Dory is a fish. What did the name John mean to Elizabeth and Zechariah,
to Luke and early Christians?
Today we can think of how John the Baptist was born as gift for
us all. With his faith and reverence for his cousin, he’s
not only our Messenger, our Prophet, but also our role model.
Yet as we are called to be like Mary, to bring Christ into our world, we are also called to be like John, to see Christ’s coming into the world each day, especially this blessed pre-Christmas day. All this in the story of one happy birth, recognized as Gift, and soon to be followed by our greatest Gift of all. Merry Christmas!
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