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Sacred Scripture describes the day on which John the Baptist was given his name:
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to be delivered, and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they would have named him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said, ‘Not so; he shall be called John.’ And they said to her, ‘None of your kindred is called by this name.’ And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they all marveled. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.” (Lk 1:57-64).
Notice, in this passage from Sacred Scripture, that the child of Zechariah and Elizabeth was given the name John on the day of his circumcision. Zechariah and Elizabeth knew that they would have a child and would name him John, even before John was conceived, for an angel had revealed this to them (Lk 1:13). Yet they waited until the day of his circumcision to name him. “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Lk 2:21).
Here again, the name of Jesus was not formally given to the Christ-child until the eighth day, the day of the circumcision. Even though the angel had revealed His name before He was conceived (Lk 1:31), the Jewish custom was to formally give a male child their name on the eighth day. This custom is clearly seen in both the births of John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ.
In Leviticus 12, Jewish custom concerning newborn children is described. When a woman gives birth to a son, she is unclean for seven days, then on the eighth day the child is circumcised. The custom to formally name the child on this day is not mentioned here, but is made clear in the above quoted passages from Luke’s Gospel. Then 33 days later “the days of her purifying are complete” and the child’s mother is now able to enter the sanctuary of the temple on the 40th day (Lev 12:1-4). Note the division of the 40 days into the first 7 days, followed by the remaining 33 days. The child’s naming occurs after the first 7 days, after the time when the mother is considered unclean, and on the first of the 33 days, the time of the mother’s purifying. The ceremony for the naming and circumcision of a male child occurs on the first day that the mother is considered clean.
“ ‘But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.’ ” (Lev 12:5).
The custom for naming a female child was different, as can be inferred from this passage of Sacred Scripture. The time from the birth of a daughter to the end of the time of purifying is 80 days, twice the time for a son.536 As with a son, the time after the birth of a daughter is also broken into two time periods, a time when the mother is unclean and a time for her purifying. A son would be named at his circumcision, but there is no circumcision for the daughter. However, the custom for naming a male child was to do so after the time when the mother was considered unclean, on the first of the days for her purifying. For the male child this coincides with the circumcision on the eighth day. For the female child, the mother is considered unclean for two weeks instead of one, so that the corresponding day for the daughter, the first day of the mother’s purifying, would be the 15th day. (Visitors would not have been allowed to come near a Jewish mother for the first 14 days, when she was considered unclean, so the ceremony could not occur until the 15th day.) Therefore, if the custom of naming the child on the mother’s first day of purifying was followed for both sons and daughters, then daughters were first formally given their names on the 15th day from birth.
The words of Blessed Anne Catherine confirm that the ancient Jewish custom was to name daughters on the 15th day from their birth. She saw visions of various events in the lives of Jesus and Mary, sometimes on the actual month and day of the event, sometimes on the day of the celebration in the liturgical calendar, and sometimes on both days. So, for example, she received visions of the Birth of Jesus Christ on both November 25 (the actual day) and December 25 (the liturgical celebration).537 She saw visions pertaining to the birth of the Virgin Mary, on September 8, the day of the liturgical celebration of Mary’s birth. And on Sept. 22 – 23, she saw visions of the Virgin Mary’s naming ceremony.538 September 22 is the 15th day counting inclusively from September 8.
Blessed Anne Catherine also said that, on the day of the Virgin Mary’s birth, she heard angels announcing that on the 20th day the child would be given the name Mary. “They announced the child’s name, singing: ‘On the twentieth day, this child shall be called Mary.’ Then they sang Gloria and Alleluia. I heard all these words.”539
But the Jewish custom was to formally give a name to a daughter on the 15th day from her birth, as is indicated in Sacred Scripture, and not on the 20th day. Nor could the 20th day have meant the 20th day of the Jewish month, for the Virgin Mary was born near the end of the month of Av. Counting forward 15 days would not bring us to the 20th day of the next month. And, even though Blessed Anne Catherine mistakenly believed that the Virgin Mary was born on September 8, she does not describe the events of the naming ceremony as having occurred on the 20th of the September.
On the other hand, if we count forward 15 days from the Virgin Mary’s actual birth date on August 5, we arrive at August 19 (counting inclusively). The Virgin Mary was born very early in the day, about midnight, so we must include in the count of the 15 days the day of her birth.540 According to Blessed Anne Catherine, there were many preparations which had to be made beforehand on the day of the ceremony, and after the ceremony there was a meal.541 Thus the naming ceremony described by Blessed Anne Catherine most likely occurred near the close of the 15th day, before sunset. Since the Jewish day begins and ends at sunset, the 16th day (August 20) would be seen by the Jews as beginning at sunset just after the ceremony on August 19. Also, August 20 would be the first full day after the Virgin Mary’s naming ceremony, the first full day when she was called Mary.
The 8th and the 15th day inclusive from birth always fall on the same day of the week as the birth. This timing made it convenient for the Jews in ancient times to determine and remember the day of the naming ceremonies for newborns. Thus the counting of these days is inclusive, counting the day of birth as day one.
The above explanation for the date and time of the Virgin Mary’s naming ceremony agrees with both the indications of Sacred Scripture, that a daughter would be named on the 15th day from birth, and the words of Blessed Anne Catherine, that the angels sang of the 20th day as the day she would be called Mary. To accord with the date and time of the actual event and with the words of the angels, I suggest that the Church place the celebration of the Virgin Mary’s Naming Day on August 20, but begin the celebration with a vigil service on the evening of August 19, the time and day of the actual event. (More suggested changes to the Christian liturgical calendar are found in chapter 15 of this book.)
The Naming Ceremony
It may seem strange to some that the Jews had a special ceremony for naming the child, and that it was held some length of time after the child’s birth. Yet we have a similar custom in the Christian Faith. The holy Sacrament of Baptism also includes the formal naming of the child, called the child’s christening, and this Sacrament is generally given some length of time after the child’s birth. The ancient custom of the Jews is not so different from our custom today.
“Joachim then laid the child in the hands of the high priest, who, lifting her up in offering as he prayed, laid her in the cradle on the altar. He then took a pair of scissors which, like our snuffers, had a little box at the end to hold what was cut off. With this he cut off three little tufts of hair from the child’s head…and burnt them in a brazier. Then he took a vase of oil and anointed the child’s five senses, touching with his thumb her ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and breast. He also wrote the name Mary on a parchment and laid it on the child’s breast…. Hymns were sung and after that the meal began….”542
Blessed Anne Catherine describes the Naming Ceremony of the Virgin Mary. Notice that a few tufts of the infant Mary’s hair are cut off and burnt. The ancient custom of the Jews was to burn lambs and other animals offered as a sacrifice to God (e.g. Numbers 29). The burning of three little tufts of the Virgin Mary’s hair, while she was in a cradle on the altar, symbolizes the offering of the child Mary as a living sacrifice to God. This ceremony included writing the child’s name on a parchment while she was on the altar and laying it upon the child. This action signifies that the child is given a name before God, as if to say, “This is the name that God gives you, the name that God will speak when He calls to you.”
-- by Ronald L. Conte Jr.