Several days ago, New Yorkers of Puerto-Rican background celebrated the annual Puerto-Rican Day Parade in Manhattan. In the past, this celebration was always close to June 24th, the birthday of John the Baptist. Originally the island now known as Puerto-Rico was the “La Isla de San Juan”, and the city now known as “San Juan” was “el Puerto Rico” (the rich port or harbor). In an odd twist, probably due to the mistake of early cartographers the names were reversed. The island became “Puerto Rico” (rich port) while the city became known as San Juan (St. John), neither of which is logical but such is often the way that things receive their names. In any event, St. John the Baptist is the patron of the island of Puerto Rico.
Today the Church celebrates the birthday of St. John the Baptist (or “baptizer” in order to avoid confusing him with the Christian denomination known as “Baptists”). Almost everyone who bears the name “John” was named for John the Baptist. In my own case, I was named primarily for my father, as he was named for his father. All three of us are “John”. My paternal great-grandfather was Patrick and it is not too much of a stretch to think that as he and his wife Annie (nee Farrell) named their son, John, they were thinking of John the Baptist.
“John” is originally a Hebrew name, “Jehohanan”, meaning “Yahweh (God) has compassion” or “Yahweh is gracious”. The name indicates John’s adult role. Zechariah, John’s father, was told by the angel, Gabriel, what to name his unexpected child. John’s role as a prophet would be to prepare the way for the embodiment of God’s compassion and graciousness, our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Luke’s Gospel indicates that John’s mother, Elizabeth, and Mary were relatives. Elizabeth was the older of the two and by the standards of her time, she was thought to be too aged to have a child. In ancient times, such a situation was thought to be a curse for the unfortunate couple. Thankfully we no longer think of childlessness in those terms but the events in the Gospels took place when the presumptions of society were quite different. So John’s name also manifested his parent’s delight that this “curse” has been lifted from them.
All in all, John’s role was to prepare the way for the oncoming Messiah. He would announce and prepare people for the long-expected One. His relative, Jesus, would be the human face of the invisible God of mercy and compassion.
John lived an austere life in the starkness of the desert. Yet throughout the Scriptures, it is in the desert where God is often encountered. In the desert, the normal distractions of life are eliminated and one is forced to face nature and nature’s God. John cared not a bit for style, décor, fashion, or even ordinary food. His clothing was a camel skin wrapped with a leather belt; his food was honey and the insects that he could catch. His sole concern was announcing the arrival of the Messiah. His rite of baptizing in the River Jordan was to invite people to repent so that they would be better able to receive the message of the One Who was to come.
John was unique in his own time and place. When his parents named him as per the instructions of the angel, they realized that their child was destined for greatness. Each of us is unique and when our parents named us they too might have imagined a glorious future ahead. John did God’s will in a manner different than his own father. Zechariah was a priest of the temple in Jerusalem. John too may have been a priest since the Jewish priestly office was inherited; nonetheless, he went about it in a manner very different than his father.
Our children and other families members may find their way to God in a manner different than ours. In their search for the divine, they have several support networks: the Scriptures; the living framework of the Church’s tradition; and the teachings of the Church. Ultimately, like Saint John they are called to use their gifts and talents, to announce that the Lord has come. Jesus has come to invite us to share the fullness of life, divine life. Our lives here are most important. This life is like the roots and trunk of a tree. We must develop them before we can reach the full blossoming of life in God’s Presence. Side by side with John the Baptist, we hope to travel in that direction during the course of our earthly lives.
God bless you,