In our Gospel reading for today, when the baby born to Elizabeth and Zechariah is about to be circumcised, the relatives are ready to name him after his father Zechariah, but Elizabeth corrects them and says, “No, he will be called John.” But the relatives protest, saying, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” So they turn and ask Zechariah, who has been mute since the birth of John was announced to him. Zechariah writes on a tablet, “John is his name.” Immediately Zechariah gains his speech and praises God.
When I reflected on this reading I was struck by the relatives’ protest: “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” In other words, “This is a completely new name for this family.” And it got me to thinking about the church’s response to the things going on in our world. Our faith has been handed down to us through the centuries from apostolic times. That will not change. But the church has always tried to make the Gospel message intelligible to each culture and society in which it finds itself. And sometimes that may require new terms that have not been heard before in order to help people deal with things that have not been seen before.
In Jesus’ time, His proclaiming of the kingdom was new and at times radical to those who first heard it. In many ways, the Gospel is still new and radical today. The challenge is to discern how the Gospel message can be translated into terms that people understand without compromising the basic truths of our faith. That has been the challenge of the Church almost from the beginning. When we face war and terror and deal with the implications of technology and the crisis facing our environment, we may need new terms to speak to the people of the 21st century. But we do that as we have always been called to do it – with love and compassion and mercy, seeking peace and justice for all of God’s creation.
As we continue to make room for Jesus in our hearts this Advent, we pray for the grace to be open to how we communicate His love to the world of today.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior at St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Community in Detroit, Michigan.