It may or may not have made it into your calendars as such, but today is the Feast of the Holy Name (also known as the Circumcision of Our Lord). Imagine saying that to someone rather than “Happy New Year…”According to Church tradition, this was an important event in the life of Jesus; and is part of the birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke—(as we’ve just heard). So, today being eight-ish days after the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we commemorate his naming as a feast day.
And while the letters of St. Paul spent a good amount of time on the subject; you’ll be happy to know that this sermon is not about circumcision.
However, what it is about (to a certain degree) is the subject of names. As you probably know, this sort of naming ceremony is a much bigger deal in other cultures—especially ancient Hebrew culture. This is because in the ancient world one’s name was somehow connected to a person’s essence. Often names would be evoked in magical spells to add more power to them. So, to know someone’s name was to have power over them.
Even in our modern context, we have some idea of the importance of names. For example, think about how important it is that people pronounce our names correctly… Or, better still, think about how much stock our culture places in seeing our own names in print…
In some families, there is the tradition of a namesake. Naming children after their parents or grandparents, because there is this sense that something about the person may be conferred with the name.
In some Christian traditions, there is also the practice of taking a saint’s name at confirmation. Once again, there is this idea that some virtue of the namesake would be conferred—also that the saint in question might continually pray for the person.
Even up until the early 20th century, it was considered a very private thing to share one’s first name. Apparently it was bad form to refer to someone by their first name (or “Christian Name”) if you did not know them personally.
All of this is to say nothing of our practice of naming buildings, estates or even cars as if they somehow possessed some anima of their own.
The point is that there really is something about names. Our names are somehow part of our personality—they’re an extension of who we are when we’re not around—especially to those who know us.
So even if we don’t understand names to the same extent as those in the ancient world, we still get a pretty good idea of how important a name is…
In Ancient Hebrew understanding—and even in modern Judaism today—the name of God is a name that is too holy to be spoken. So much so that God is referred to by the moniker, “Hashem” simply meaning “The Name.” This is of course the name which God revealed to Moses from the burning bush, the name that is transliterated as Jehovah or Yahweh. And while the meaning of this name is not completely clear, it is loosely translated as “I Am that I Am”, or “I Shall Be as I Shall Be.”
The point being that the name itself is one which isn’t very precise to begin with… It’s as if God wanted to be so intimately known by Israel that the name was entrusted to Moses. But at the same time it is still a name which doesn’t really allow us to pin God down. If we consider the ancient understanding of names, perhaps we can guess why.
So, often in Scripture people gave God names based upon certain actions, or things that God did for them. The naming of God then became this very personal thing, even an act of devotion to God. All the same, this name, “I Am” is still the predominate name by which God chooses to be historically known.
But it shouldn’t be too hard for us to see the conundrum in all of this. We know that by God’s nature that God wants relationship with us. In fact, by God’s nature as Trinity and One we know that relationship is a big deal to God. However, there is something about God’s name that keeps God separate and wholly away from us. And with a name which cannot be uttered or fully understood, the identity of God becomes hard to connect to—let alone to have relationship. This is of course where Jesus comes in.
While God has a mysterious puzzle of a name; the name of Jesus is something quite different. It is a name which means “Salvation.” Once again it’s a name given based upon something that God does for us. But it’s also a name common to us, making it far more intimate. Jesus (Hesoos), or even its other form Joshua, for example, remain popular names.
Now, this doesn’t devalue the power of the name Jesus. In fact, I think that the power in the name of Jesus is found in the fact that it is a name that belongs to us—it’s a name which belongs to humanity, regardless of culture. This is because even though he is the Incarnation of God, Jesus belongs to us.
That is to say that in his humanity, Jesus draws who God is well into our sphere of being. God is no longer simply mysterious and transcendent (although that part remains). Rather, in Jesus, we experience God as having a life we can imagine and a personal name we can call. But in Jesus, God also experiences us—not just as our creator and sustainer—but as a friend, a companion—someone who’s had some of the experiences common to all people. So in this way, Jesus—even by his very name—brings us closer to God by recalling to us all of who Jesus is to the whole of human experience. It recalls God’s act of salvation through Jesus. And all of this comes simply through him having a name.
We know from Scripture that all of the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell in him. But the power and wonder of Jesus for us is that he was also pleased to dwell with us—a fact made concrete by his participation in human history. Not to mention his continual love and longing for us.
We know from our own experience that names have a significant place in our lives—even a kind of power. Perhaps this is some remnant of a more ancient time, or some mimetic memory left over from our ancestors. But when we think about the mystery of the Incarnation, and the fact that God was given a name—a common name, no less—perhaps we might wonder if we’ve forgotten the power of the name Jesus.