by Heather Walker Peterson
“No, he is to be called John!” The outburst is mine. Heads turn to hear my woman’s voice, but I do not take away my eyes from my eight-day old son, a cloth wrapped loosely around him after his circumcision, as he is cradled in a male relative’s arms. I wish to hold him, to re-swaddle him and press his tiny self against me, his fine dark thatch of hair in the hollow of my neck. But first his name must be declared, his final blessing of this ceremony that he is a descendant in the covenant of Abraham.
There is a collective murmur from our neighbors and relatives. I am breaking tradition. “There is no one among your relatives who has that name,” I hear. They must think my late middle age and the exhaustion of this last week--my recovery from the birth, the nights of nursing--have gotten to me. Why wouldn’t our son be named after his father Zechariah, my husband respected as a priest for his integrity and devoutness? I see Zechariah’s eyes, on me, his back straight despite his coming on in years, his pride in his son, the intensity of his eyes telling me, He is to be John-God is gracious.
Those who are gathered motion at him, and he holds out his palm as if a wax tablet with his other hand indicating a stylus. Someone is sent off for these. I had hoped that after the birth, God in His mercy would return Zechariah’s speech so that his son could hear his father’s voice along with the tears that he felt trickle onto his scrunched face. But not yet.
It was a couple months shy of a year ago that he returned from his weeklong stint at the Temple—one of the two weeks that he annually serves there. Rumors had already reached me that the lot had been chosen for him for the rare opportunity to approach the altar. The worshippers outside had started to stir impatiently until he appeared, dumbstruck by a vision while in the Holy Place. I had sat in anticipation the day of his return, jumped to my feet as he entered the door, and took his hands to look into his eyes as the light from outside fell upon him.
The story of Moses is that his face glowed when he came down Mount Sinai, and I saw something similar in Zechariah’s face, still lined by age and yet a clearness there, a vitality, a flush of something joyous in his cheeks, his entire countenance. He wrote then in the wax about the angel Gabriel who had visited him and we the honored parents who would bear a son, John, who would turn the hearts of God’s people back toward Him. God is gracious.
I will not be our foremother Sarah I said to him. I will not laugh in disbelief. And he smile and embraced me long.
We became like newlyweds again. Without his voice, I hungered for his touch. I closed myself off in the house for five months as my breasts that had begun to sag instead swelled and my belly slowly protruded. I was participating with God’s work, hiding myself as if Elijah by the brook of Cherith. Every evening, I reminded myself: “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.” This was my way of prayer along with constant soft singing and humming to the baby within. I cared for my body through the mornings of heaving and avoided others’ sickness until the flutters that could have been last night’s lentils were clearly little boy kicks from my insides. The time of most miscarriages was past. I was ready to greet the world.
It greeted me. At six months, my young cousin Mary burst through the door, her eyes holding the same light as Zechariah’s. My entire middle shifted and jumped as she entered as if a great rock had been thrown into a pool, ripples undulating up and down, my skin tingling from head to toe. Filled with the Holy Spirit, my thoughts ran with new knowledge, my mouth spilled words:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” My son would prepare the way for hers, the long-awaited king of Israel. For three months, the house was no longer quiet but brimming with our chatter, hopes for not only our future but the prophesied future of God’s people. She left before the birth, missing this ceremony surrounded by our family and neighbors.
A young man is handing Zechariah the tablet and stylus. He writes that our son’s name is John. There are more gasps of surprise, but they are halted by the spoken praise that Zechariah is releasing after a ten-month suppression. Baby John’s eyes open, fixed at the sound of his father’s voice. God is gracious.