The time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
In some families great value is placed on the honouring of traditions. Those traditions come in many shapes and sizes. Some are little more than superstitious repetitions of words and actions, while others are seen as defining status or lineage. For families that place great value on maintaining such traditions it really matters when they are varied, or even broken.
Even in our modern, free-thinking world many families perpetuate traditions that keep family names ‘alive’. Babies are often named after parents or grandparents. To ignore such a tradition can easily result in upset and pain across a whole extended family.
As we have already discovered, Zechariah and Elizabeth both had a long and prestigious lineage. Zechariah was descended from the priestly line of Abijah, while Elizabeth’s ancestry could be traced back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Such impeccable family credentials could not be ignored when it came to the naming of their newly-born son. But, when the moment came for his name to be made public, Elizabeth did just that. The elderly mother, who had been so greatly blessed by God, insisted that her son should be called John. She, whose lineage was so long and respectable, declared her intention to break the chain of tradition. What was even more shocking was the collusion of her mute, priestly husband.
Zechariah had been dumb for nine months, from the moment he expressed his doubts about God’s plan and the role his family would play in that plan. Then comes the moment when Zechariah has the opportunity to make amends for his doubt. The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth would be called John, and something new would begin.
Not all traditions are bad and in need of change, but we do need to be cautious. When tradition morphs into mindless repetition it can easily become a seditious form of idolatry. Traditions need to be constantly examined for their true worth. The whole Christian Church is based on history and tradition, but there is another strand that we ignore at our peril. The Christian Church is also founded on the words of scripture, and those words are constantly challenging us to see the world through different eyes – the eyes of God.
Christmas is a time of traditions. Those traditions make us feel warm and secure, but … some of those traditions only serve to distance us from the God who was born as a baby in a humble stable in order that he might save humanity from its own folly. Let us pray for the strength and the courage to follow the example of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Let us pray that our hearts and minds may follow the calling of God, and not the pressure of tradition.