Naming John the Baptist

“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18).

“How can this be, since I am a virgin” (1:34)?

What is striking in the two pericopes giving Zechariah’s and Mary’s encounters with Gabriel is both their proximity, their near identity in so many ways, and their distance—a distance told in the divergence of Gabriel’s reactions. The two passages run parallel and run away. And they also exist, of course, as the final pieces of a mosaic begun in the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality and the promise of Isaac, exist within that story while recapitulating it and rendering it an anticipation of a motif ultimately figured around the evangelical moment. Like Mary and Zechariah, Sarah is filled with wonder and skepticism, she too offers a recital of reasons to doubt the given promise.

Pointing out Genesis 18’s return in this passage, marking its consonance, also serves to foreground the question of the near grammatical identity of the evangelical responses, raises again the question of what to do with their nearness and distance. To Zechariah and Mary Gabriel proclaims an unexpected birth, to each he announces the name the child and what the child will do. And both Zechariah and Mary ask how, both offer evidence for doubt, Zechariah citing age and Mary virginity. What then is actually different in their responses that merits Gabriel’s chastising condemnation and muting of Zechariah and his commendation of Mary? (It might be possible to say that no difference can be discerned—at least that Luke gives us no difference—that Zechariah’s doubt appears to Gabriel though not to us, perhaps that this just is the way of doubt or that the lack of difference signals our transparency to Gabriel’s perception. We know that Zechariah doubted because Gabriel says he did but not by some other means. But if all these options are possible, they are hardly satisfying—they disappoint in trading on a notion that the text’s significance, the seemingly intentional setting of these two visitations as contrastive parallels and bookends for the verses that oddly and crucially intervene, recedes before interpretation itself; they disappoint in suggesting the text’s opacity is its meaning.) Thus despite the structural grammatical similarity it does seem possible to say that Zechariah’s response is unique because his question appears oriented toward a desire for certainty that emerges from his doubt of Gabriel. And Mary, who also asks how and also offers reasons for doubt, seems instead transfixed by the event itself, her questioning less directed toward surety than expressive of wonder—we understand how how might be asked and also left open, as one says how beautiful, which is itself a question but one not ordered to an answer (still not rhetorical, I want to add, not a negation of itself as question—the expression how beautiful is truly asked even if an answer is unimaginable). Mary’s how ruptures the possibility of certainty itself, leaving only the event.

This difference might be witnessed not only in the questions themselves but in the differences between Gabriel’s responses that extend beyond condemnation and commendation. One might surmise as much because Gabriel responds to Zechariah with a declaration of his authority, but to Mary he offers a strange account of how, though not one that enacts a closure to the question’s openness. He adds words but not at the cost of miracle. Emphasizing just this, in turn, announces the significance of another dissimilarity within the pairing of these visitations: Mary’s promised event, her coming to be pregnant, just is miraculous. It exists outside the realm of what can be known. I want to say it can only be believed, though this may not make it unique. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s promise on the other hand exists within the realm of plausibility, however much it might mock the conventional horizons of expectation and biology (this is, I think, why both Zechariah and Sarah in different ways mock the promise of what they have desired—they mock because they are mocked, or at least they find themselves mocked). It exists, furthermore, within the realm of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s religious identity and tradition, even though Zechariah clearly cannot imagine their participation as characters in that identity and tradition.

In all this, the passage gives skepticism’s opposite not as certainty but hospitality, but a hospitality that makes demands, that demands a certain sort of response—even response as submission, a relinquishing of the authority and control of the host, returning the same host/guest inversion that animates Sarah’s story. That Gabriel’s visitation demands a response but does not effect one is clear enough from the fact that his angelic presence is strange enough to necessitate, as almost always, the prefatory “do not be afraid,” yet is apparently not so stunning, so miraculous as to actuate belief in and by itself. That Zechariah might fear the angel but not trust him, I mean, opens his response as a failure to respond, but also indicates the centrality of response, the way in which he must make something (say something) of this stranger who comes to him in the Temple. All this is to say that Gabriel not only can be disbelieved, but that he can only be believed, and more, that if this was not so it wouldn’t make sense to talk of response and hospitality. We understand, that is, the depths of Mary’s hospitality because in Zechariah we see just how much it costs to believe and submit, for Gabriel’s appearance is both promise and command: “You will name him John” (1:13). The divine event demands from Zechariah a submission to a world outside his narration, and it is precisely this that his skepticism cannot allow him. In this sense, Zechariah is doubly contrasted in Luke 1, not first by Mary but by Elizabeth, who we will come to see submits to his own nonverbal description but also submits to the event as God’s own, accepts it as God’s work and favor and in turn bears the skepticism of the relatives who will not accept the name John. This disbelief, in turn, also serves to offer Zechariah his own rehabilitation and healing. It is not, in fact, as Gabriel suggests, John’s birth that frees Zechariah’s tongue but Zechariah’s submission to a narration not his own—a relinquishing of his right and capacity to name (that the name at hand, the obvious name, is his own is too significant to omit). Zechariah is healed by not naming his son; he is also healed by naming him John, of course, and this is the most mysterious point in the entire passage, mysterious in its suggestion that despite every ethical claim about hospitality and submission the chapter has raised, still we do not stop naming things and God start naming them. Nor does the recognition of naming’s often synonymy with a power that might refute skepticism free us from naming—a point I take to be constitutive of the inseparable difficulties and possibilities of the philosophical discourse of otherness. In Luke it is apparent that conflicted naming is not escaped but transformed. God’s naming does not replace our own; or perhaps better it is more important to say that despite all this, the coupling of the story with the promise of the Incarnation suggests that Zechariah’s acceptance of God’s naming exists within God’s wider acceptance of creation’s naming.

2 thoughts on “Naming John the Baptist

  1. I’d be interested in the ways you connect this analysis to the specific verbal difference between the two responses: “how will I know” vs. “how will this be”? Someone — I forget who — has linked these two answers to epistemology and that of metaphysics. Perhaps that’s trying to do too much (although it offers fascinating possibilities). But the distinction certainly seems related to your reading of Zechariah’s response as a search for certainty, versus Mary’s response as an act of wonder… and welcome.

    I would also love to hear more about the link between skepticism, or the search for knowledge (even of the unknowable?), and feeling oneself to be mocked….

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