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HOMILIES

NAMING BABIES

This Simbang Gabi homily was delivered at Mary the Queen Parish on 23 December 2023.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the continuing story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and the husband of Elizabeth, who happened to be Mary’s cousin. If you recall, he was the very first character we meet in the Gospel of St. Luke.

In that opening scene, the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the temple, and Zechariah was told the surprising and wonderful news that after years of waiting and praying for a child, finally, his wife Elizabeth was now pregnant. But then Zechariah asked the angel: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

For reasons unclear to us, the angel took issue with his response and proceeded to strike Zechariah mute, so that he was unable to speak until the birth of his son. What is it exactly that the angel disapproved of? Many say it was Zechariah’s lack of faith, but I wonder if that was really the issue. After all, implausible as it may sound, couples bearing a child in their old age isn’t unheard of in the Bible. Just remember Abraham fathering Isaac when he was 100 years old.

So what could have been Zechariah’s problem? 

We can’t know for sure, but today’s Gospel reading may give us a clue. It was now eight days after the birth of John the Baptist, and it was time for the child’s circumcision. Just about everyone expected the child to be named “Zechariah” after his father. Imagine their surprise when Elizabeth informed them that the child would be named John. 

“But you don’t have any relative named John!” they protested, rushing to Zechariah, who asked for a tablet and in writing, agreed with his wife.

Only then, we are told, when Zechariah agreed that his child was to be named John, not Zechariah, was his mouth opened and his tongue freed. 

My guess is that the key to the mystery lies in the choice of the name. Reading today’s Gospel, I suspect the problem is not so much Zechariah doubting the angel’s news about his wife’s pregnancy. Rather, his main issue was the angel’s instruction that his son—his long-awaited son—be named John, and not Zechariah!

Naming babies, after all, especially sons, is a big deal for the Jews, as it is in many cultures. The strict tradition at the time was to name your children after yourselves, grandparents, or some other significant relatives, whether living or dead. You can’t just pick a name out of nowhere: You can’t pluck your child’s name from any tree except your own family tree. So for Zechariah and Elizabeth to name their son not after his father or any known relative was unheard of.

Especially for Zechariah, who had waited so long for a son: We can only imagine how difficult it was NOT to give his son his own name. It’s like receiving a gift, but you can’t claim it as your own. Naming his son Zechariah would allow him to make the child truly his own. 

In asking that the child be named John, God wanted Zechariah to accept this gift not on his terms, but on God’s terms. This son—the future John the Baptist—was given to Zechariah and to Elizabeth not simply to claim as their own, not just to raise as they wish, and certainly not for them to hoist their dreams on, but to prepare for whatever mission God had envisioned for him. 

Hence, it was only when Zechariah dropped his own agenda and expressed his willingness to name his son John, the name chosen by God and a name that, by the way, means “God’s gift” was Zechariah able to speak again.

All of us have a Zechariah in us. We all have a tendency to act just like him. When we receive a gift from God, we naturally want to claim it as our own, and as its rightful owner, we want to use it and do with it as we like.  In short, like Zechariah, we want to receive the gift but on our own terms and given our own agenda

But that’s now how it works with God. God gives us a gift for a reason, His reason. He has a preference for how His gift is to be used. We can’t just “take the money and run.” We can’t just say, “Thanks, God, but you may leave me alone now because I think I’ll take it from here.” Instead we are expected to, yes, receive the gift with gratitude, but also to figure out what His reason might be for giving that gift to us, so that we can use that gift in the way that He intends it.

In short, God expects us to receive His gifts with no set conditions, no agendas of our own, no ifs and buts. He expects us to trust that He has a very good reason when He gives us a gift, and to believe that even if His gifts sometimes come wrapped differently, they are ultimately for our own good and for the good of the world. We just have to find out God’s reasons for giving us these gifts.

Maybe tonight we can each recall one special gift that God has given us this past year. If we look back at the year 2023, is there one blessing from God that stands out from the rest? It may have been some good news that we received, a significant experience we underwent, or a life-giving relationship we found. It’s also possible that God’s greatest gift to you this last year came wrapped in bad news or in pain, some sort of “blessing in disguise,” something that you recognized as a blessing only afterwards.

Whatever it is, ask yourself: “Have I been a free and unconditional receiver of this gift from God?” In other words, did we accept God’s gift wholeheartedly, with everything that is supposed to come with it? Have we asked ourselves what reasons God might have for giving us this gift? And just as importantly, how does He want us to use it in our lives?

My dear brothers and sisters, we find ourselves this evening just two days away from Christmas Day. As we know, Christmas Day is a day of gift-giving because it is the day we remember that supreme gift that God has given humanity: the gift of His only Son. May we receive this great gift with hearts brimming with gratitude, but also with eagerness to fulfill God’s intentions in giving us this great gift.

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