The Holy Name of Jesus
The federal government tracks a lot of information, including “The Top 10 Baby Names” for any given year.[i]For baby girls, currently the most popular name is Olivia, followed by Emma, then Charlotte, Amelia, Ava, Sophia… and on it goes. For baby boys, currently the most popular name is Liam, followed by Noah, then Oliver, Elijah, James, William… and on it goes.
The naming of a baby is no accident, don’t you know? The child’s given name or names may be the continuation of a family’s heritage, or the opposite: a sign of a family’s wanting to start afresh with the birth of this child. The child’s name may express identity, or dignity, or hope, or gratitude. Sometimes names demarcate a family’s history. One of my nephews has a middle name “Taif,” which is Saudi Arabian, because he was born while his father (my brother) was working in the Persian Gulf. We are known, remembered, identified, and called by name.
As children grow up, they will name their belongings, and they will be in relationship with everything they name. Children will often take on new, imaginary names for themselves, and with the names, new exploratory identities. I remember one summer as a young camper far away from home, I told all my cabin buddies that they should call me “Butch,” because I was tough. (That’s probably hard to imagine….) It worked pretty well for a week at camp, but my new identity disappeared when I returned home to face my little brother. He certainly did not know me as “Butch”; he was still struggling to simply say “Curtis” or “Curt,” which he could not pronounce. What he could say was “Dirt.” “Hi Dirt!”, which hardly suited someone trying to be “Butch.” For names to last, they need to fit.
Sooner or later, most of us as children or adults will suffer the wound of being called a name, a derogatory name, not of our choosing. The name-calling may be associated with our given name which has been twisted into something cruel or comical sounding; maybe it’s a mean name which jeers at some physical trait or mannerism we bear; maybe the name mocks our family, or our ethnic, or racial, or religious heritage; maybe the name-calling is a sign of others’ jealousy. On the other hand, a person might be given an endearing nickname, perhaps a diminutive, as a token of affection. I received an email from an older acquaintance named Edgar who was distinguished person of great stature. His email address was “edgarito” (little Edgar), which is how he was affectionately known as a child. Very endearing.
Our own name is what uniquely distinguishes us from others. However our name also connects us to others because knowing our name marks a relationship. People who know us will call on us by our name. With someone knowing our name, they can identify us, include us, and have a certain claim on their relationship with us. Everything important is given a name. And in the name and in the naming, there is the power of both identity and relationship.
Our psalm appointed for today – Psalm 8 – points to God’s magisterial authority and infinitude, God, whose dwelling place is eternal in the heavens: “O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!” God, whose name is so exalted, but not speakable: God, whose power, unpredictable; whose distance, unfathomable; whose face, unseeable; whose hands, untouchable; whose name, unspeakable… until now, with the birth of Jesus.
In the calendar of the church, today is designated as the Feast of the Holy Name. The Gospel according to Luke remembers today as the 8th day following Jesus’ birth, when Jesus would have been brought to the Temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised and publicly named.[ii] The God who is Creator of all, who is otherwise beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp, takes on a face, and a form, and a name as a child of Bethlehem. God is re-presented in our world, born just like we are with hands, and a heart, and eyes; with desires, and expectations, and needs, and fears; and given a pronounceable name: Jesus. Jesus has a named family of origin; he is called on by name; he addresses people by name, some of whom he renames. He is eventually mocked by name. The long-awaited Messiah – who had been prophesied to be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, King of Kings, Lord of Lords” [iii] – is born as a very vulnerable baby and with a human name: “Call him Jesus.” Jesus, a name which both distinguishes him – because his name sets us apart from us – and simultaneously opens the possibility of a personal relationship with us, because we can know him, remember him, and call on him by name, which he invites.
Some days our best prayer, our best plea, and our best praise is simply to “namedrop”: to use the name that God has shared with us: Jesus, which literally means, “saves.” “Yahweh saves.” Knowing Jesus’ name gives you access. Use Jesus’ name. Breathe the name of Jesus as you make your way through the day. Breathe the name of Jesus while you watch, or wait, or worry, or wonder. Knowing his name invites your relationship. Breathe the name of Jesus for others. Call on Jesus by name. Jesus will live up to his name for you to understand you, help you, heal you, give you hope, and save you when you are lost. Namedrop “Jesus.”
“Jesus…” “Jesus…” “Jesus…”
[ii] Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31.
[iii] Names for the Messiah, from Isaiah 9:6 – “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
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