With these simple words, three inter-related points arise. First, Elizabeth is beginning to shift the momentum of original sin. Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat of the fruit that God had told her and Adam not to eat of, yet she did. Adam did not support her nor step in during her dialogue but remained silent in the face of the pressure placed upon Eve. Both of them slipped into sin by not following the will of God.
At the time of the birth of Elizabeth’s son, there was even more cause for celebration, for Elizabeth was past child-bearing years. The day had come to have the boy circumcised and named, her relatives and neighbors had gathered around with great excitement and there appeared to be a unanimous decision to name the boy after his father. Elizabeth did not, like Eve, cave to the pressure and temptation surrounding her. Unlike Adam who lost his voice at the time he needed to speak up, Zechariah found his voice, had Elizabeth’s back. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah knew what God wanted them to do and were faithful to follow through despite any cultural pressure and established norm to the contrary.
The second point is already alluded to in the first, and that is how Elizabeth and Zechariah were faithful to God amidst the familial and social pressure placed on them. Some may be removed by such familial pressure when naming a child, but for this time, Elizabeth despite the pressure held her ground and stood firm that the boy would be named John. Ignoring her, the people deferred to Zechariah, the boy’s father, thinking he would have more sense, but he, ignoring the paternal cultural pressure, supported Elizabeth. The point here is not so much the name, but the following of the will of God in the face of pressure to do the opposite.
This brings us to the third point and that is the maturation in moving from identity to integrity. Culture and traditions are not sacred, but God is. Elizabeth and Zechariah faced a lot of familial and social pressure to conform, yet they chose to be true to God, to be true to themselves, and they chose integrity over their identity.
The very simple account of Elizabeth and Zechariah naming their child John in opposition to the pressure offers for us a way to counteract the rising tide of polarization and conflicts that we face in our own country today. Identity provides safety, support, and security. It fuels one of our deepest pangs of hunger and that is to belong, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We can find our identity in family, friendships, our religious traditions, culture, political affiliations, common interests, clubs, activities, and hobbies. But our identity, which provides us with security and stability is good but can also be a trap.
We want to belong so much, the drive is so strong, that we may have made decisions, acted in ways, and supported others, that go against who we are just so that we can belong. We may have known what God wants from us, heard the whispers of his voice in our conscience, yet were pulled by the louder voices of our group. We are sometimes so ingrained by our identity that we are being strangled and suffocated by it.
In today’s Gospel account, Elizabeth and Zechariah were true to the will of God and won over those placing pressure on them by their family and neighbors. More often though, being a person of integrity does not go so well. Their own son, who would grow up to be John the Baptist, would lose his life by speaking truth to power.
John would also show his integrity when he said, “I must decrease and he must increase” (cf. John 3:30). John was talking about Jesus who embodies the moral courage that we all need today. Though more than just a model of a life well-lived, more than just a word on the page, Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is present to us now, to guide and lead us, to empower us with the same love that he embodies, such that when we invite him into our lives, we too can be transformed to live a life of truth, moral courage, and integrity.
Becoming less, like John the Baptist, and allowing Jesus to be more by working through us, will help us to act and speak up for those that are being belittled, demeaned, and/or dehumanized. We can then transcend the ranks of identity and rise to the heights of integrity, especially when it means standing up to those in our “group.” Protecting police officers, priests, and/or political leaders who have abused their power at the expense of others for the sake of protecting the identity of the institution or our place in it not only adds further abuse but weakens the institution. While at the same time, casting a net of guilt by association over all in any group is also unjust. We also may be shaming those who could be the very ones to help to bring about necessary and sustainable change.
Being people of integrity, we are to speak for those who have been abused and not afforded basic human dignity. We are to protect those who might be at risk and/or those who have been or are being abused, oppressed, and/or prevented equal access. This provides a necessary step in providing support for those needing healing, allows for the planning and enacting of the necessary reforms to end the risk of further abuse and create more equitable access.
All of which will also strengthen the integrity of those within the construct of institutions that are put in place to empower the very people they serve. We are to hold each other accountable while at that same time be willing to work toward a reconciliation that will arise through mutual respect, openness to dialogue, collaboration, and reconciliation.
Photo: Dorothy Day speaking with police officers during her time picketing for the rights of farmworkers in California in 1973. Credit – Bob Fitch.