The story of the birth of St John the Baptist is found only in St Luke’s gospel. The event is only described very briefly, but from these nine verses a number of interesting details emerge. These include clues as to why Zechariah may have been unable to speak and of the importance of the name ‘John’.
After his mother Elizabeth gave birth to St John, friends and family gathered to celebrate the happy occasion. On the eighth day, the baby was circumcised, in keeping with the Law of Moses. At this point, there was a family squabble as to what the child should be named, with relatives pushing for ‘Zechariah’ – the name of his father.
Elizabeth, however, was insistent that her boy should be called ‘John’. This is because the angel Gabriel, when he had appeared to her husband Zechariah in the Temple to announce the birth, had already given him that name. Zechariah, as a result of the shock encounter and his reaction of disbelief, had lost the power of speech (Luke 1:11-20).
How Elizabeth knew that Gabriel had been specific about the name ‘John’ is unclear. Perhaps Zechariah had previously written down what had happened when she asked him about what had happened in the Temple. In any case, the family decided to ask Zechariah what he thought the child’s name should be. He then asked for a writing-tablet and wrote ‘his name is John’. At that moment his ability to speak miraculously returned, causing him to praise God.
Given his advanced age, Zechariah may have suffered a specific type of stroke in the Temple – leaving him with ‘Broca’s aphasia’, which can cause people to lose their power of speech. It can also mean that they have problems understanding other people. This may explain why his friends and relatives gestured to him, to help him appreciate what they were saying (1:62).
The name John means ‘God is gracious’. Why did Gabriel – and then Elizabeth and Zechariah – insist on this particular name? It was, after all, a fairly common name at the time. Perhaps it was because ‘God is gracious’ was to be the key message of his mission, when he preached to the people about repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
This memorial window, in the Arts and Crafts style, dates to 1949 and is found alongside other images telling the story of St John’s life and death. It’s entitled Joannes est nomen ejus (His name is John) and pictures the moment Zechariah wrote the words on the tablet, causing his speech to return. Family and friends, as in the text, are seen in the background discussing the name of the child. Zechariah wears the vestments of a priest, while an angel (probably Gabriel, who previously appeared to him) bears the scroll with the instruction to name the boy ‘John’. The artist is unknown.
See the full image:
Where to find this work of art
Our Lady of Reparation, Croydon
Read the relevant passage