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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: December 24, 2023
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor preached the following homily at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock on Sunday, Dec. 24, 2023.
What's in a name? Parents spend a lot of time deciding what name to give their children. Some names are chosen to honor beloved relatives, living or dead. My middle name is Basil which is also the name of my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather and now a great nephew.
That's what people expected John the Baptist's parents to do. When informed that the name would be John, they said: "But there is no one among your relatives who has this name!"
But what is distinctive about the names we encounter in the Christmas story is that they all mean something in Hebrew, and they generally reveal something about the person's role in God's plan.
Today I proclaim to you a message of hope: We have that Savior — he is Jesus, whose very name means God saves. He was born on Christmas. Welcome him into your heart. The darkness will dissipate, and his light will grow in you and fill you with hope, meaning and purpose the more you conform your life to his.
First, we have John the Baptist's father, Zechariah. “Zakar-i-ya” means "my God remembers" —“i” means “my” and “ya” is a shortened form of God’s name, “Yahweh,” which Jews do not pronounce. It will be through Zechariah that we see that God has remembered the promises he has made through the prophets.
This was six months before the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to invite her to be the mother of the Savior (“Gabr-i-el” — "God is my strength” —“El” is the actual word for “God” in Hebrew — “El” means God, “Ya” is God’s name.)
God appeared to Zechariah while offering the sacrifice in the Temple, informing him that despite his old age and Elizabeth's barrenness — “El-i-sheva” means "My God fulfills" (meaning his promises) — despite the impossibility, they will have a son. God has remembered them.
They were to name this son John, which means "God is merciful" — "Ya-hannan” This reflects the fact that God will use John to prepare the way for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. He will do this through a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins — God's mercy for sinners — and his proclamation that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
And then there is Jesus himself, whom Scripture also calls Emmanuel. We use the Greek form of his name, Jesus, but the form of his name that he actually went by was “Ya-shua” — "Joshua" — which means "God saves" and reflects the fact that Jesus is our Savior.
"Emmanuel" means "God is with us" — “Im-anu-el” — and reflects the fact that our Savior is God himself who has become man in the person of Jesus. The salvation God will accomplish for us begins in earnest on Christmas with God taking on flesh (and indeed the full human condition) in order to save us and redeem us.
Today we live in a world in which even non-believers celebrate Christmas and in which even many who call themselves Christians don't really feel a need for a Savior. They either don't feel lost — are blind to how out of whack their lives are — or at least don't expect God to be enough interested in them to do much about it.
This is one of the reasons why our world seems so much darker today than it did only a few years ago. This on top of the fact that objectively speaking with climate change and desperate people at our southern border and war in the Holy Land, Ukraine and elsewhere, things really are worse than they were just a few years ago.
Think of the loss of civility and respect in public discourse. Today many people fear for their own future and for the future of our world. Think of refugees worldwide fleeing for their lives who face closed borders and cold hearts. What would have happened if the Egyptians had refused entry to the Holy Family when they had to flee Bethlehem to save their son's life? Think of the breakdown of the family and of morality and the loss of hope among so many people. We need a Savior.
Today I proclaim to you a message of hope: We have that Savior — he is Jesus, whose very name means God saves. He was born on Christmas. Welcome him into your heart. The darkness will dissipate, and his light will grow in you and fill you with hope, meaning and purpose the more you conform your life to his. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. He is the light that is stronger than any darkness we will ever have to face.