After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. Luke 2: 21
Today, the Episcopal Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Most families view naming our children as an incredibly important decision. Many ponder the issue for months, and even years. Often, the name of a child will ring with significance for the family, sometimes borrowing the name of the father or of an important ancestor. Sometimes, families will examine books filled with baby names and their meanings. Sometimes, parents name the child after a city, or favorite character in a book or a movie. How then, does one go about naming the incarnate son of God?
Now, throughout the Old Testament, we encounter several stories of God being pretty careful about revealing his name. In Exodus, God tells Moses: “‘I am the Lord.’ I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.” Ex. 6:2-3. Similarly, God tells Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” Ex. 3: 14. This divine ambiguity becomes so ingrained into the Jewish understanding of the divine that the name of God could not, and still cannot, be spoken by the Jewish people.
Luke’s Gospel reports that Gabriel told Mary to name the child “Jesus” (Yeshua in the Hebrew). Luke 1:31. Mathew reports that an angel of the Lord instructed Joseph to name the child Jesus. Matt. 1:21. In both stories, God clearly directs Jesus’ parents about his name. Jesus’ name results, therefore, from both divine and human activity.
In first century Palestine, the name Yeshua (“God saves” or “God is salvation”) was a fairly common name. It echoed with meaning, invoking the name of one of the heroes of the Exodus, the central narrative of the Jewish people. But I think there’s something more at work here: in the very name of his incarnate son, God engages in the process of self-revelation. The Lord is telling us what He’s like, answering questions the Jewish people had raised for years about the nature and name of God.
Traditionally, devout Jews named their male children as part of the rite of circumcision, which constituted part of the Abrahamic covenant. We find God’s self-revelation, then, in the midst of the ritual fulfilling the covenant. And God, through his participation in the naming of this child, reveals Himself and Jesus’ mission to us: salvation.
One of my favorite monastics, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote about the name of Jesus. He said that the Jesus’ very name was light, food and medicine. Jesus brought light into the darkness of a world dominated by power, dominance, sin and death. John’s Gospel teaches that Jesus “was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Jesus described himself as “the bread of life.” He brought food that “restores the wearied faculties, strengthens virtue, [and] gives vigor to good and holy habits…” Bernard of Clairvaux, 15th Sermon on the Canticle of Canticles. The name of Jesus serves as medicine for souls in torment, and all the illnesses of this world. We remember how often Jesus was engaged in healing, and how the disciples were able to heal through the invocation of Jesus’ name.
And so today, we celebrate the naming of our Lord, we recognize the name:
that 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,
to the glory of God the Father. Phil. 2:9-11.
In the life of Christ, God has revealed Himself as meek, humble and self-denying. In the name of Jesus, God tells us that He is deeply concerned with our salvation. In the midst of the muck and stench of the manger, through the joy of the wedding at Cana, in the sorrow of Lazarus’ tomb, and despite the horror of Golgatha, God saves. That’s got to be Good News.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis