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A new name for a new life

· Meditation ·

Luke 1:57-66.80

A child is always a sign of the Lord’s benevolent gaze. It is the proof and testimony of his love for a man and a woman who are creating history together. The Gospel therefore, which is “the” Good News and narrates life, could not but also contain stories of births. We are told of two births in the New Testament: two children whom the Lord alone could give, two lives bearing newness: John and Jesus. “What then will this child be?”: John’s birth is a source of joy, the neighbours rejoice but they also bear in their hearts important questions, they recognize that he is not the fruits of humans but a gift. Luke sets this vital event in the poor environment of a man and a woman who in their poverty and humility are nonetheless in tension as they await the promised Messiah; they bear within them a seed of hope that God will make their lives fertile. The Good News of the Gospel begins precisely here, this is the first testimony that the Prophet John gives to us: each one of us is a gift born through God’s will and our faith consists in saying “yes” to life with the full awareness that God wanted us and loves us.

El Greco, “St John the Baptist” (1600)

Zechariah and Elizabeth are there as testimony to us: a humble, lowly couple who out of obedience accepted even their lack of children and continued to persevere in a just life, in faith. They are a sign of impossibility, of the absolute powerlessness of the human being, old age, barrenness, yet at the same time their union, lived in expectation, leaves room for God’s grace which manifests itself in the gift of what it had been impossible to hope for: a life that is born from death. Only in this absence of children did this man and woman leave room for the invisible intervention of God’s mercy. Only in a dilation of time inhabited by hope can Zechariah now become the one who praises God’s mercy, and can open himself, old though he is, to the newness of a new life. A life, new: here the child, the birth, introduces a state of newness, sets things in motion when our actions and our thoughts are paralyzed in habits, in antiquated ideas, tied to our ego, which by now is convinced that it is sufficient unto itself. This is a newness which relaunches our faith, which brings it out of well-known places and rituals and sets in motion our ability to speak and to speak to others.

Alexander Ivanov, “The Preaching of John the Baptist” (19th century)

In the emptiness that remains John, “God is gracious”, arrives: this will be the name of the new life. It is a new name which in itself bears the strength of Elizabeth’s courageous “no” to the men in front of her who rise up in defence of tradition. To the Evangelist two verses suffice to tell us of John’s birth. The central moment in the passage is instead theconferring of a name: the child thus enters the Lord’s Covenant and shares in his blessing. With his name John receives his personal vocation, which is always unique, with an irreplaceable task to carry out: no one can cooperate in God’s work instead of us, each one of us has an utterly personal reality and value. Elizabeth, in silent agreement with the child’s father, opposes what is traditional, what belongs to the past, and out of her own mouth gives the child the new name, the name indicated to Zechariah by the angel (cf. Lk 1:13), a name which expresses the child’s unique reality within the anonymity of his lineage, which expresses that unique and original element which God wants in every human creature. The newness of God enters our lives thanks to our trust in a different word which breaks with the past, which we do not yet know but to which we want to bind our hope. John has a place in tradition, he bears within himself the whole past but also an absolute innovation in what he is and what he does with his life and his decisions: he puts an end to Aaron’s priesthood, he addresses everyone in the desert, in an open place where he sets up no kind of barrier. If John is a prophet, he is so in a new way for he refers totally to Jesus and to his new message, of which he is the “indicator”. His proclamation is no longer God’s judgement on the day of his coming but rather that of grace, the message of love which overcame death and renders each one of us capable of this newness.

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