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.
The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Phillipians 2:5-11 & Luke 2:15-21
After the long months of a pregnancy and the exceedingly dangerous experience of childbirth in the ancient world, bestowing a name upon a child must have been a deeply cathartic action. Even today, in the midst of the profound uncertainty that faces every new life, the moment a child’s name is first spoken aloud in his or presence signifies a new beginning rich with specific potential. The act of circumcision that accompanied – and still accompanies – the naming of a Jewish male child reminded the parents of a larger reality holding their new child in being: the ancient covenant between God and Israel. It situated the child on an axis of meaning both horizontally, in relation to his ancestors and his eventual offspring, as well as vertically, as a frail human creature in relation to the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Under normal circumstances, this was also the child’s first major wounding: the first shedding of blood.
A Name and a Wound. A sign taken upon the lips and tongue, and a sign written upon the body. In any ordinary human life, these are gifts of inexhaustible significance. At the same time they are utterly common, shared by countless others. The Holy Name of Jesus and the first precious drops of Blood spilled from his human body have become fountainheads of meaning for the Church throughout the ages. But contrary to the impression we receive from so many Renaissance paintings, the inner significance of these events would have been entirely hidden to the casual observer. The cosmic task initiated by God through the angel Gabriel is now brought to faithful, obedient completion by Mary and Joseph. But though it was spoken by the lips of an angel, the name Yeshua was, after all, an incredibly common name. The act of circumcision enfolded him into the common life of the Jewish people. The eighth day after the nativity of this special child was a very special day in the life of his human parents. But it was an utterly ordinary day for everyone else.
Psalm 8; Luke 2:15-21
You may have seen The New York Times’ front-page article several days ago about the naming of babies, what the article called “the annual most-popular-baby-name derby.” From all across the United States in year 2011, the four most popular names given to baby boys were Jacob, Ethan, Michael, and Jayden; and for baby girls, Isabella, Sophia, Emma, Olivia.1
The naming of a baby is no accident. Often times there is great care taken in the naming of a newborn child, don’t you know. The child’s given name or names may be a sign of the continuation of a family’s heritage, or a sign of a family’s wanting to start anew, signified in the birth of this child. The child’s name may express identity or hope or gratitude, or through the name, the parents may seek to bestow dignity or particular significance on the child’s birth. Sometimes names demarcate a family’s history. – One of my nephews has a middle name “Taif,” which is a Saudi Arabian name, because this nephew was born while his father (my brother) was serving in the Persian Gulf.
Back in my early elementary school years, one of my biggest fears was that someone would discover my middle name. Nobody but my family knew it. And it was also all their fault. My middle name is “Gustav,” a Swedish name passed down from my paternal grandfather and my own father. I had feared that I would end up being nicknamed “Gus,” the archetypal “dumb Swede.”