In the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, the power of a name was very real. It was widely assumed that the essence of a being resided in its name, and that if people could gain access to the names of supernatural beings they could manipulate them into serving their own purposes. Magicians and sorcerers abounded who promised to reveal their secrets to common people. Their spells often included dozens of divine names. It was hoped that at least one of them would hit the mark and force a supernatural being to bring about the desired result.
The ancient Hebrews did not normally engage in such magic; in fact sorcery was forbidden under their laws. But they shared the cultural assumptions of their Gentile neighbors about the power of divine names. The sacred name of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was a thing of immense power, so sacred that it could not be spoken. The essence of God’s being was carried in a four-letter word, Yahweh, that could be recited only by a priest and only on special holy days. Another Hebrew word, Adonai, which we translate as “the Lord,” was used to refer to God in everyday discourse.
The Biblical traditions have remarkable stories demonstrating the power of naming. God creates the world by naming “light,” “day,” “night,” and “sky.” The act of naming is the first vocation of Adam, who names the living beings that inhabit the earth. God calls Abram and Jacob and then renames them Abraham and Israel – names which mark a dramatic shift in their life’s trajectory, a new orientation, a new mission, a new way of life bound in faith to the God who named them. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls his flock by name and teaches them the power of his own name. Some of his followers, such as Peter and Paul, are given new names to mark a particular charism or mission. Early Christians called upon the name of Jesus Christ for healing and deliverance. Today the church remembers the power of naming when a child is christened at Baptism; not only is the child given its Christian name but from that point on it bears the name, “child of God,” which reflects the essence of its true nature and identity.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name, which marks the occasion when Mary and Joseph presented their newborn son to God in the Temple, to be circumcised and to receive the name of “Jesus.” The Hebrew word Yeshua that we translate as “Jesus” or “Joshua” means “God saves and helps.” Jesus’ parents had been given that name by an angel who promised that through this child God would bring salvation to the world.
There are several ways in which we might ponder the significance of this day:
First, we might consider the power of the name of Jesus. Christians throughout all times have called upon this name for salvation, for healing and for help. Do you need a savior today? a healer? a deliverer? a companion and friend? Invoke the power of Jesus’ name. He is one who saves.
Second, we might consider the power of naming to build up or to destroy. What we call others affects them. The names we use can be means of blessing or cursing. We might ask ourselves:
- What labels or names have I affixed to others to hurt them or to judge them? How could I name them in a way that would bless them and honor them?
- What names or labels have others given to me, either for blessing or cursing? How have they affected me, for good or for ill?
- What names or labels do I use when I think of myself? Do they offer blessing, encouragement and hope – or do they hurt me or limit me?
Names are powerful things. And there is no name that is more powerful than the name of Jesus. He has been given the name which is above every name. We honor that name today, and call upon him to save and help us, which he is so eager and so able to do.
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