23 December – What’s in a name?

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours 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 neighbours, 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.
(Luke 1.57-66)

There are so many people who I know who are agonized by the name that their parents gave them. But it is their name and for better or worse that is the name they are known by. But I can remember some people at school being very unwilling to disclose what their middle name was. Perhaps it was because they were named after a grandfather, an aunt, given a name that every member of the family had had for ‘generations’. I began a few days ago by saying that I had found records of an Alfred Nunn working as a cabinet maker in Ipswich in the 18th century. Well he was in a long line of Alfred’s or should I say that my paternal grandfather was. They were all Alfred! Not that I have anything against the name ‘Alfred’ but I am grateful that the pattern was broken when my father was born who was called Peter and fortunately for me it was his Christian name that became my middle name. I am very pleased with Andrew Peter to take me through life – I feel as though I got a good deal out of it.

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There was consternation amongst the neighbours and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The eighth day had arrived, the naming day for a new born child and the neighbours were eager to know the name because that would mean so much. The assumption was that the firstborn male child would take his father’s name. But his father had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the word of the angel. So it was his mother who had to name him. ‘He is to be called John’, she says in a very firm way – there was no argument and when they sought confirmation of this from his dumb-struck father they had an even more emphatic response . ‘His name is John.’

It was a great name to choose. The Hebrew Yochanan means ‘Yahweh is gracious’, ‘The Lord is gracious’. It is what the parents of the child had experienced, the graciousness of the Lord, who had given them what they could hardly dream of – a gift beyond any gift and they wanted to remember this always. Every time they would look at their child, every time they called his name they would remember the graciousness of God.

"He is to be called John."

“He is to be called John.”

Remembering that God is gracious and that we should be as well is part of our response to what God has done for us. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, wrote this

In thinking about religion and society in the 21st century, we should broaden the conversation about faith from doctrinal debates to the larger question of how it might inspire us to strengthen the bonds of belonging that redeem us from our solitude, helping us to construct together a gracious and generous social order.

To create a gracious and generous social order, a community in which the true goodness of God is reflected, nations which deserve the name of the good society, that is the calling that we have received, all people of faith, working with people of good will. Perhaps that could be another goal of this journey as we are Bethlehem bound.

Gracious God,
may I bear your name,
may I bear your nature,
just and righteous one,
Amen.

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