Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading God speaks to the prophet Isaiah. God speaks of Israel as “my servant in whom I shall be glorified.” Isaiah will “bring Jacob back to him, to gather Israel to him.” Furthermore he will not only restore the tribes of Jacob, but will be made “the light of nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” In Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist sees Jesus and proclaims: “Look, there is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.” John then states that while he baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize in the Holy Spirit.
As with many of us, I was confirmed in 7th grade, in 1973. Most of us look at the Sacrament of Confirmation with a mixture of scorn and amusement. We were told at the time that this sacrament was our “gateway to our adult faith.” We were told that while we didn’t choose to be baptized, this sacrament embodied our recognition that we chose our faith.
Thus we reacted with scorn and amusement. In reality almost none of us chose Confirmation. Instead we recognized that, along with adolescents throughout the world, it was better to nod and smile and pretend that it mattered as much to us as it did to our parents (who were likely also nodding smiling and praying we wouldn’t cause a scene). As a matter of fact, when one of my classmates asked our teacher what would change, he suggested that we could give more money in the collection plate (at the time we had been given childrens’ envelopes to participate with our parents when the collection basket passed by.
But in the midst of all of this I did find something that I found valuable. I was told that I could choose a “Confirmation name.” My parents chose my first name (Thomas) and my middle name (David) and truthfully I like both. I’m named after my paternal grandfather whom I loved with all my heart.
Nevertheless I loved the idea of choosing a name for myself, even if that name would almost never be used. At first I thought of choosing the name “James” after my best friend at the time. But on further thought I found myself fascinated with John the Baptist and I chose his name. To this day my full name is Thomas David John Allain.
I don’t remember much of what I was told in my preparation for Confirmation but I do remember the concept of being “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” We were told that the bishop would do this by anointing us with oil, and he did.
Eventually, in the years after Confirmation I did indeed choose my path as a disciple. When I left for college many of my friends stopped going to church or thinking much of faith and its role in our lives, but I kept going to church, and even entered religious life. And I believe that in those years I grew into my confirmation name.
The idea of gaining a new name when choosing a new path goes as far back as the 17th Chapter of Genesis when God proclaimed that Abram would now be known as Abraham as he would make Abraham the father of a new nation.
Later in Genesis, Abraham’s grandson Jacob famously wrestled with a mysterious person (who he later believed to be God). The next day God came to Jacob and changed his name to Israel, or “one who wrestled with God.” It’s a complicated story and is written through several chapters of Genesis, but at this point in his life Jacob must have felt he was wrestling with everyone, and not without reason. Suffice it to say he was on the run from a few incredibly bad decisions. Without putting too fine a point on this, we can see that his night of wrestling with God informed the direction his life would take. And the newly named Israel took on the mantle of his grandfather and is today a man we revere.
Isaiah revered him too. In today’s first reading we see the interplay between the names Jacob and Israel. While Jacob was promised to lead his grandfather’s nation, Israel will be a light to all nations so that salvation will reach to the ends of the earth. Had Jacob remained Jacob he might have enjoyed limited success; he might have “passed the baton.” But because he wrestled (and chose the correct road) he begat Joseph and his brothers. If you’ve seen the play “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” you know Joseph’s role in saving Pharaoh and Joseph’s family from starvation which meant our story did not perish.
And it continues in today’s Gospel. There is a parallel with John who becomes John the Baptist. History buffs like me are well acquainted with the idea that your last name is your profession (Smith is short for blacksmith, Cooper is a barrel maker, etc.) but with John it goes deeper than that. When John travelled into the wilderness and began to baptize his followers, and eventually his cousin Jesus, he claimed his role in the line that ran through Abram/Abraham, Jacob/Israel, and Isaiah. We know him not as simply “John” (his given name), or “the Baptist” (his work) but as something much deeper. We revere John the Baptist (and I chose his name) because he accepted his role in salvation history. In the next few weeks we’ll see how John the Baptist’s ministry set the stage for the beginning of Jesus’ public life.
And it continues through us today. The idea of choosing a Confirmation name has fallen out of favor in some places, and I think that’s a shame. We were asked to choose the name of a saint we wanted to emulate, though in fairness most of us chose names we liked. Girls often chose Mary or Ann; boys often chose Paul or one of the Gospel writers. And I like to think that even if we chose names because we like them, we grew into those roles.
I have no idea what became of the other 179 teenagers who were Confirmed with me in 1973. According to demographics, most don’t attend church, but most married and are now parents (and frighteningly, some are grandparents). I’m not terribly upset with the ones who no longer attend mass, even though we’ve long graduated from childrens’ envelopes to regular envelopes when the collection plate comes by. But I hope in some way we’ve claimed our place in salvation history. I hope we’ve embodied in the next generations the need to wrestle, as did Jacob, with our past and choose the right future. I hope we’ve expanded our world view and made the transition from Jacob to Israel.
I also hope that while our last names used to define our job, we now see ourselves as more that just what we do. The love John the Baptist had for his cousin Jesus created a place for Jesus to begin his public ministry. Let us all pray for that creative love for everyone we know.