What's in a name? Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 1:57–66, 80:

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.” But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.

As some readers already know, I missed a couple of weeks of Gospel reflections while I took some vacation. I traveled to Ireland to study Gaeilge, the Irish language, in a lovely little village in the northwest near Donegal. It was an amazing experience, combined with what was likely the best week of weather possible. The Irish name of the village, Gleann Cholm Cille, means the valley of Colmcille, the 6th century saint that preached to the people living in the area at the time, as well as Scotland later on. Better known as St. Columba, the town still has the ruins of his chapel, and honors him with a celebration every June 9th with a midnight bonfire and a walk along his path.

That was not my only reflection on names during my stay in Gleann Cholm Cille. My instructor asked for our names during the first day in the immersion class, and on hearing my last name proceeded to conduct an etymology of it. I knew that Morrissey was a modern rendering of Ó Muirgheasa, but I didn’t know what that meant. “Muir” refers to the sea in Irish, and “geasa” is the plural form of “geis,” which means “taboo” or “spell,” in the sense of, er … witchcraft. For instance, “geasa grá” means “love spells,” and so on. In other words, my family name refers to sea voodoo, which is a lot more colorful than we deserve, to be honest. It was the source of some amusement in the class, too.

Generally speaking, though, names have a meaning and a purpose, and the act of naming something carries considerable power and influence. We see this in today’s Gospel as well as our first reading from Isaiah, both of which also reference the naming of Christ as well. And all of these names carry meaning and weight, even more so because of their origin.

Today’s Gospel brings us the birth of John the Baptist, where Zechariah overcomes his muteness by insisting on following the Lord’s plan for naming his son. He was struck dumb for questioning the Lord’s plan when revealed to Zechariah in the temple, which clearly gave him plenty of time to reflect on participating in the Lord’s will. At the time, the custom for naming children — especially sons — was to honor ancestors or relatives. Elizabeth knew well what the Lord wanted, but other family members demanded that Zechariah weigh in on the topic. He fulfilled the Lord’s will, and in doing so had his power of speech returned to him.

What was the meaning of “John”? The Hebrew version in that time was Yochanan, sometimes spelled Johanan or Jehohanan, which meant “God is gracious.” John the Baptist was called to become a prophet, one who taught the Israelites about God’s grace through the sacrament of baptism, and that sins could be washed away through the willingness to be reborn into God’s Word. The Lord wanted His chosen prophet to carry that name of hope as an integral part of his ministry. It is not a surprise that this name has been carried into many languages and cultures.

The same can be seen in today’s reading from Isaiah. The prophet begins the 49th chapter by noting that the Lord had his name prepared before he was born. “The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name,” Isaiah writes. What is the message contained within the name “Isaiah,” in the original Yesha’yahu? It means “God is salvation,” a theme on which Isaiah repeatedly teaches in his prophesy.

This is even more significant when we consider Isaiah in his historical context. Isaiah prophesied in the 8th century BC, not long before the fall of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 BC. He preached about a century prior to the first exile of the Judeans. The Davidic kingdom had been split for two centuries prior to that, and both kingdoms had suffered through inept and idolatrous rulers and a separation from the Lord’s call to be a nation of priests for salvation. Isaiah’s name was a reminder in perilous times that God alone is salvation, and Isaiah’s preaching gave the Israelites a path to return to trusting in Him.

And of course, we also know of the naming of Christ, thanks to Luke’s Gospel. In the first chapter, Luke tells of the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she has been chosen as the mother of the Messiah. Gabriel specifically instructs Mary to name the child “Jesus,” or in the Aramaic she spoke, Yeshu’a. In Hebrew, the name is Yehoshu’a, which means “God saves,” which describes Christ’s mission on Earth — to save all who wish salvation and wish to conform to the Lord’s will, and to pay for their sins Himself.

One more example comes to mind. The Lord established Israel, which means “God contends” or “May God prevail,” as a nation of priests to teach salvation to the world, but the nation repeatedly turned its back on its mission and purpose. Even so, God continued to send prophets of all names to call them back, and finally sent His salvation to live among us and teach us the way. And He continues to lovingly call us to His salvation to this very day.

The lesson here goes beyond names, of course. In all of these instances, the Lord had a plan for each, but he also has a plan for us all, too.  Isaiah and John could have chosen not to cooperate, but instead they chose to love and serve the Lord. In doing so, their names became part of our heritage, and their teachings ring down through history to continue teaching us.

We have that same choice, regardless of what our names mean. He knew us before our birth and knew what part in His plan we could play. We can freely choose to conform to God’s will and cooperate with His plan of salvation and help others to find it, or to ignore it and pursue more material goals. All we need know is that He calls us by name to love and serve Him and each other … even us sea witches. Arrrrrrrr.

The front page image is the birthplace of John the Baptist, now marked in a chapel in the Church of St. John the Baptist, Ein Kerem (also Karem), Jerusalem. Photo by Ed Morrissey.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.