There are probably worst things in the world but that list would have to include being named after your father, as in ”Junior.”
You don’t believe me? Just think of poor Frank Sinatra,… Jr. I can rest my case. This poor guy has to carry his father’s handle throughout his life. Imagine the conversations upon meeting poor Frank, Jr. How long would it take before the conversation sways to, “So, what was it like being raised by a saloon singer?” “Was he home much?” “Did he play ball with you?” Frank, Jr.’s responses would need to be courteous because he’s representing not himself but his father.
Or worse still, does he ever represent himself! No one will ever say to Frank, Jr., “Wasn’t your father somebody famous?” or “What are you up to these days?”
To walk in the shadow of someone is truly daunting. You become someone else’s shadow. How can you not think at the end of a day, “Why doesn’t anyone ask me anything about me?” And so your life is lived.
I heard Frank Jr. sing in a concert once. We went to his concert because, well, he’s the son of… He wasn’t very good but it’s the closest we got to, well, you know who. Last Sunday, television honored Frank’s 100th birthday, if Frank wasn’t dead. Did “Jr.” sing? Nope. Did “Jr.” get to say something? Nope again. Tony Bennett, who should be dead was there. And he sang!
Who’s the shadow to Johnny Carson? Who’s the shadow to Joey Bishop? Who’s Jack Benny’s shadow? Here’s one that you may not know, who’s Merv Griffin’s shadow? And just to be contemporary, who’s Jimmy Fallon’s shadow? (Steve Higgins.)
I guess you know where I’m leading with this. John the Baptist was Jesus’ warm-up act. He was not the center of attention as much as he may have wanted the attention – with his weird outfit and still weirder diet. John had an act but it was not a hard act to follow. His was the warm-up act that doesn’t get to keep the stage for himself. We’re amused by his warm up act but that’s not why we came to the show. We want the main event. Jesus comes along and had a stand-up that is still revered today. He had the lines, he had the stories, he had the, what we’d say today, “a magical touch” (or was it a miraculous touch?).
Parents must know what it feels like to have this small, little thing running around one day and constantly eating while this small, little thing will one day advise you on your financial and retirement investments and your end-of-life matters. (How does that all happen so quickly?)
If God named Jesus, “God, Jr.” to have him only mimic his Father then Jesus would be a puppet and we’d all be God’s puppets and completely fooled. Jesus had to uncover his own, unique personhood or else this whole religion thing would have collapsed.
I thank my dad, Walter, daily that I’m not “Walter, Jr.” because it is not only the strange name but the baggage that I would need to carry about the real “Walter.” (By the way, if the Holy Spirit is to be included in this happy family-thing then would she be “God, Jr., Jr,” or “God, III”?!)
I read this week about another “second-named-but-still-the-same person, person.” We thought Jerry Falwell was dead but he cleverly named his son, “Jr.” which made him president of the school that his father founded. (Who said you need to earn anything?) Well, Jerry’s “Jr.” told his college aged students that “if more people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill.” (You realize that “Jr.” is talking now about a religion, not individuals. His father’s voice continues through his, “Let’s teach them (them!) a lesson if they ever show up here.” The apple doesn’t fall far from dad’s tree when he’s named you after himself. I remember praying for a peaceful death for Jerry-then-senior but I guess my praying needs to continue.
There are two defining moments in the life of Jesus that made him his own person and hence our Savior. The “Agony in the Garden” toward his Father and the “Wedding at Cana” toward his mom. (Your two parents, get it?) The “Wedding” with the miracle-wine-story shows that he wants to be identified as himself while at the same time obedient to his mother. He does both, which is quite a trick in itself; we’ve all tried it at some point in our lives with our parents but it rarely worked for us. The “Garden” story was Jesus’ defining moment when he realizes that he has choices, a true sign of an adult. Jesus chooses. Jesus breaks away from God requesting, if possible, that the cup of death be passed to someone else but he chooses to be his own person and, in doing so, follows his Father. It was a dramatic breaking away from God and his union with God, all at the same time. Jesus becomes the “Christ” and no longer a “Jr.” because as a person he chooses his own right, in his own place – which happens, happily, to be the same purpose as his loving Father.
We shine because God’s light shines on us. We’re not the main act when it comes to our Creator but we are the main act in our parenting, friendship and relationships but always in the shadow of our Creator. Each of us is “John the Baptist” in our words and actions because they are always pointing toward Someone greater than ourselves. Yes, we’re the opening act that warms up the awaiting audience to a glorious relationship with the main act, our Creator.
And then do you know what happens? Slowly our shadow diminishes as our identity increases and our reliance upon God becomes solid. “Lord, I can’t do this alone,” we say to ourselves, “but I know who and I am and I know that I am greater with You within me.”
Frank Sinatra, Jr.? I feel sorry for him because his father cursed him with just a father’s name. And, unfortunately, he can’t sing. I regret Jerry, Jr. for furthering religious fears and division that I thought died with his father.
But John is not a junior. His last name is his occupation. Baptist. (Does that make me “Joe the Priest?”) John paves the way, pours the concrete, smooths it over carefully and welcomes the one whom he knew he was not, whose Allen Edmunds he can’t afford to buy. But before his headless exit he commissions the top billing star by baptizing him. The lesser baptizes the greater. The greater cannot do what “great” means without the lessor’s anointing. Go figure. We like to think of Baptism as the original sin stuff but how about being baptized into a life that is full of adventure, rejection, successes and then even more adventure? John freely sends Jesus to be who he is and do what he needs to do; without the “junior” stuff. Can we do any less with the youngsters around us? Be less to them in order for them to be more.
If I was Frank, Jr. I’d change my name to “Sam” or “Harry” Sinatra. That way I’d still be related to the guy but unhinged by his life and able to live the life that is mine.
Here’s one more, I can’t resist. She’s the shadow to Fred Astaire and did it all perfectly backwards.
John has no “junior” added because he prepared and was the “Baptizer.” What a better handle for someone than one who baptizes into life’s mysteries and excitements. What a guy, John is, – to know his place and then to place another in his place – gracefully, humbly, willingly and freely.