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 influence them and perhaps entice them into serving their 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 a 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, YHWH (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 tradition contains remarkable stories demonstrating the power of naming. God creates the world by naming things into being: “light,” “day,” “night,” “earth” and “heavens.” The act of naming is the first vocation of Adam, who is given the responsibility of naming the living creatures that inhabit the earth. God calls Abram and Sarai, and renames them Abraham and Sarah – 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 has calledthem by name. Jacob wrestles through the night with a mysterious stranger, who gives him a new name, Israel, and sets him on a new course. Jacob demands to know the stranger’s name in return, perhaps seeking to gain power over him, but the stranger refuses to disclose his name. When morning breaks Jacob is convinced that he has seen God.
Names were associated with power. In the Hebrew tradition, to do a thing in the name of another, or to invoke or call upon his name, was an act of “utmost weight and potency,” writes Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware. “To invoke a person’s name was to make that person effectively present.”[i] To speak the name was to call forth the soul of the person; it was an act of deep significance. Thus, to the Romans, Paul writes, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13). To call upon Jesus’ Name is to invoke his presence and his power, and to invite him to come and save.
The power of naming is evident throughout the New Testament as well. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls each of the sheep in his flock by name, and teaches them the power of his own name. “Ask anything in my name and I will do it,” he tells his disciples (John 14:14). Some of his followers, such as Peter and Paul, are given new names that reflect a particular charism or a mission to which they are being called. Early Christians called upon the name of Jesus Christ for healing and deliverance. Always and everywhere the Church has celebrated the One whom God has“highly exalted” and to whom God has given “the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Those words (Phil. 2:5-11) are drawn from an ancient hymn and are quoted by Paul in his letter to the Philippians, written in the year 62.
The Church remembers the power of naming whenever a child is christened at Baptism. Not only is the child given its Christian name but from that point on he or she bears the name “child of God,” which reflects the essence of his or her true nature and identity. Names carry power and shape who we become. What does your name mean to you?
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name, which marks the occasion when Mary and Joseph presented their newborn son before God in the Temple, to be circumcised and to receive his God-given name, “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.
The prophets had foretold the coming of an “Anointed One,” a “Messiah,” who would come in great power to save God’s people. “For a child has been born for us,” writes the prophet Isaiah (9:6), “a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” He is all of those things and more, and yet the most powerful of his names is simply “Jesus.” An early Christian literary document called “The Shepherd of Hermas,” written in the 2nd century, testified to the power of Jesus’ Name: “The Name of the Son of God is great and boundless, and upholds the entire universe.”
So we see throughout the history of God’s people the significance of names and the power of bestowing a name. But what significance might this Feast of the Holy Name have for us? How might recalling and celebrating the Holy Name of Jesus make a difference in our lives? I’d like to suggest these two things:
First, that we recognize the power of the name of Jesus, and invoke it for our own benefit and for that of others. It is clear from the Gospels that the Name of Jesus holds extraordinary power. In his Name, demons are cast out and the sick are healed.And we are invited in the Gospels to use this Name for our own benefit and for that of others. Those who invoke this name draw upon this power.“If you ask anything in my Name, I will do it.” Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware explains that
God’s name is essentially linked with His Person, and so the Invocation of the divine Name possesses a genuinely sacramental character, serving as an effective sign of (God’s) invisible presence and action. For the believing Christian today, as in apostolic times, the Name of Jesus is power.[ii]
The Name is power, but Bishop Ware goes on to say that a purely mechanical repetition will by itself achieve nothing. As in all sacramental operations, we are required to cooperate with God through active faith and ascetic effort. We align our own wills with the Divine will, and allow God’s power to work in and through us.
The name “Jesus” means “one who saves and helps.” Perhaps you are in need of a savior today. Perhaps you have come to this place with an emptiness that longs to be filled, with a wound that needs to be touched and healed, with a sin that is crying out to be forgiven, with a burden that begs to be lifted. Jesus is here. Invoke his Name, and ask him to save and help you. He is “Immanuel,” “God with us;” “Jesus,” the “One who saves and helps.” Invoke his Name, not only on your own behalf, but on behalf of others as well; asking Jesus to save and help them in their need. There is power in that Name.
Second, today might be an opportunity to consider the power, for good and for ill, of the act of naming itself. The names we assign to one another have the power to build up or to destroy. They can form or deform. They can be used to support and encourage, or to tear down. They can be means of blessing or of cursing.
We might, therefore, ask ourselves:
▪ What labels or names have I used– openly or in my own mind – to hurt others or to pronounce judgment on them? How could I name them in a new way that would bless them and honor them?
▪How have I “named” what has happened to me in life? What words have I used to describe the events and circumstances of my life, to myself or to others? Have they been accurate? Helpful? Constructive?
▪ Have my words sown discontent or division in my family or community or work place? Or have I used them to bring healing and hope?
▪ What names or labels have others given to me, either for blessing or cursing? How have the ways people have spoken of me and to me 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, and the act of naming can be a way of exerting power for good or for ill. How have I used words to bless or to curse?
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.
[i] Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, The Power of the name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality; (Oxford: SLG Press, 1974), p.10.
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