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The Power of Choosing a Baby’s Name

As he contemplates becoming a two-time grandfather, Rick Hamlin looks to the Bible for angelic inspiration.

Rick Hamlin feeding baby Silas.

What’s in a name? How to choose the right one? We’ve been thinking a lot about that in our family lately, because we’re to be blessed by two—two!—grandsons this year.

Silas Hamlin was born on July 3, to our son Tim and his wife, Henley. Wisely enough, they chose not to share in advance the name they had picked, knowing of course, that before the fact they’d have to hear our opinions. At the baby’s birth, though, we thought the name wonderful, invoking George Eliot’s classic novel Silas Marner (which I confess I’ve never read) and Silas in the Bible, one of the members of the early church.

Our second grandson is due in mid-December. He’s not here yet as I write this, but we do know his name. Will it be the right one for him? I would be hard pressed to say, but I’m touched beyond all reason.

Scripture offers plenty of examples of the power behind a name and the angelic push to choose carefully. You see it in the Christmas story, in the Gospel of Luke. Even before we get to Mary and Joseph and the baby, we meet Zechariah, a devout and righteous priest with no children of his own and little prospect of ever having one because he and his wife are getting on in age.

As a priest, Zechariah is required to serve for a week, away from home, at the temple in Jerusalem. One day, he enters the temple to light the incense, a sacred duty. All at once he sees an angel, standing to the right of the altar. Not just any angel, either. It’s Gabriel the archangel.

You’d think a saintly man like Zechariah would be delighted. On the contrary, he is frightened—and incredulous, especially when the forthright Gabriel delivers what is, without a doubt, outlandish news: Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, are to have a child and his name will be John—a name that means graced by God. This blessed son will be great in the sight of the Lord; he will be filled with the Holy Spirit; he will drink no wine or liquor; moreover, he will be a forerunner, preparing the people for the Lord’s coming.

I suppose Zechariah can be forgiven for doubting this prophecy. It promises so much, and in his long life he has seen how the hopes of his people have been dashed time and time again.

“How shall I know this for certain?” Zechariah asks tentatively. “I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Apparently Zechariah was forgetting, even while standing there in the temple, that miracles are a regular part of the angels’ repertoire. Witness the aged Sarah—even older than Elizabeth—and the godly visitation, which only made her laugh, as she was promised the coming of a child, Isaac, whose very name means laughter.

Gabriel is not pleased by Zechariah’s reaction, and punishment is immediate. The man is rendered mute. (In the Christmas pageant at our church last year—performed on Zoom—the kids made much of that word “mute,” a concept they knew well from remote learning at school.)

Zechariah comes out of the temple unable to explain what’s happened. He makes elaborate signs with his hands to passersby. Yes, he’d seen a vision! But that’s all anyone could understand. When his priestly stint was over, he returned home and—miracle of miracles—his good wife, Elizabeth, becomes pregnant.

Sixth months later Gabriel makes another visit, this time to a young woman in the city of Nazareth in Galilee to inform her of another miraculous birth. Mary will have a child named Jesus. To share the good news, she goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, and in one of my favorite details of the story, when the two women greet, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. John the Baptist has met Jesus for the first time.

Meanwhile, Zechariah is mute through all of this. Elizabeth gives birth, and at the baby’s circumcision she tells everyone that his name is John. The crowd wonders: Why John? Shouldn’t the baby be named after his father? They turn to Zechariah, who calls for a tablet and writes, “His name is John.” At once it is settled. Zechariah regains his voice and praises God at great length.

Names do matter, and not only to the angels. Sometimes people want to call me Richard, assuming Rick is a diminutive of that. I have to correct them. My full name is Frederick. But long ago, my parents looked at my infant self and thought, “Frederick would be a lot to call this little one.” Hence, I became baby Ricky and grew to be Rick.

Which brings me to the incredible honor my wife and I will receive this December. Our son, Will, and his wife, Karen, will give birth to a son they’ve decided to name Rick. Not Frederick, but Rick. Rick Peter Hamlin.

I’m not sure which angel was involved here, but I like to think it may have been the mighty Gabriel himself. My fondness for him dates back to my own birth certificate, showing my debut in San Gabriel, California. Welcome, baby Silas and soon-to-arrive Rick, to a world full of angels.

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