The Feast of the Holy Name
Today is the Feast of the Holy Name, of Jesus that is, the feast day that falls on New Year’s Day in the church calendar. It’s 8 days after Christmas, which means it’s 8 days after the day of Jesus’ birth, the traditional day for the bris, the circumcision and naming of a Jewish boy. It’s an event that gets one line in Luke’s gospel: 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. But the holy name of Jesus, that gets a whole lot more besides. We pray in Jesus’ name, we dare sometimes to speak in Jesus’ name, we bow at the name of Jesus, some of us actually and physically in the midst of worship. This is a feast day within the larger feast of Christmas, and one that offers us the chance in this new year to ask: what’s in a name?
What’s in a name? In some ways we don’t really get the importance of a name in our culture. We think a lot about what to name our kids, whether it’s a family name or something from a book or something we make up, and we sometimes comment on how a person’s name suits them, or doesn’t suit them. Jewish custom chooses a name for a child beginning with the same letter as a deceased ancestor’s name – or more traditionally, the full name as an ancestor. Traditional African names often have stories behind them – a friend of mine told me of a Ugandan child he met named Accident, which I realize would have been my name if I’d been born in that culture. And then there are cultures where your name is believed to reveal so much who you really are, that only family can be trusted to know it. Your name is secret, because knowing a person’s name gives you power over them, something you don’t want potential enemies to have.
In the stories in the Bible, the name of a person is always somehow connected to and descriptive of that person’s essence and personality. That’s why people have their names changed in stories where some radical shift happens to them – like Abram becoming Abraham, or Saul becoming Paul. And now we have that beautiful renaming ceremony in the Episcopal church for when someone chooses a new name, like we did with Annie a few months ago. Names have meaning, names have power.
And maybe especially so with the divine Name. God tells Abraham in the encounter at the burning bush that his name is I Am, or YHWH, a name that is written only in consonants (the four letters are called the Tetragrammaton). The name is never said aloud by an observant Jew. But it is a name that reveals God – God is. God is everything that is. Without God, nothing has being. And for God’s son, the Messiah, the name is chosen by the angels before he is born: Jesus or Yeshua, a name that means ‘God saves.’ That is Jesus’ full identity: the essence of who Jesus is, in other words, is to show us that God saves.
The name doesn’t tell us how this happens. But when we look at Jesus’ life, we see how. It’s revealed right from the very start: Ordinary working people, shepherds, are the first ones to get the news about Jesus’ coming. They find him in the form of a baby, vulnerable and small. At the end of his life, this Jesus gives up his life for the world, emptying himself and taking the form of a slave. And in between we hear of a Jesus who welcomes all to the table, who calls the powerful to account, who heals the sick, who blesses children. This is who Jesus is; this is how God saves. God saves not through dropping down out of outer space to pull supernatural feats of power; God saves through weakness and vulnerability; God saves in gathering in the lost and caring for the unloved; God saves through loving us as one of us. God saves by getting right in there, in the muck, with us. I am, says God. I am, right here with you.
And if we claim Jesus’ name – God saves, through servant humility and love – if we pray ‘in Jesus’ name’ and ask God’s blessing in Jesus’ name – then it also implies something for us. If we bear Jesus’ name as Christians, then we are ourselves supposed to live the way Jesus did. ‘Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus,’ Paul tells the Philippians: do as Jesus did. Set yourself and your agenda aside, stop worrying about your own pride and ego, let God be the source of your strength and worth, and reach out in love to others. Get out of the way, in other words, and let God do God’s work in you and in the world. It should be so simple.
I don’t know if any of you have made New Year’s resolutions. Usually resolutions tend to be something about eating healthier, exercising, quitting bad habits. Things we should be doing all the time but for some reason aren’t – so we take the new year as a time to restart again and do better. I could suggest one more: come to church more regularly. It has been shown repeatedly to be good for your physical and mental health, for your family and relationships, for your sense of happiness, purpose, and self-esteem. Really! Going to church is good for you. The more regularly you attend, the better. Keep that in mind.
Self-improvement projects can do us some good, of course – but they can also run the risk of putting our focus thoroughly onto ourselves above all. We can do them for the wrong reason…I’ll look so fabulous at the reunion that everyone will be jealous; I’ll build up my confidence so I can tell so-and-so to get lost; I’ll stop spending time trying to take care of other people and go to the spa to treat myself instead; I’ll go to church to improve my self-esteem! these are the kinds of things you see on the covers of the magazines in the check-out line. New Year, New You! they scream. Another chance to put ME first. Yes…but.
If you need to quit smoking or swearing or waste less time online, then by all means, use New Year’s as an opportunity to start. And come to church. But I encourage you this year to pray as you do so – to listen to God’s desire for you and to pay attention less to what you want and more to clearing the way for what God wants to happen. It may not mean great power and strength – and fitness and beauty – in the way you think of it. God saves in humility and weakness. So you may need to allow a little weakness and vulnerability in yourself. Stop the distractions, whatever they are, long enough to feel your own need. Set aside the attempt to prove yourself – at work, at the church meeting, at home – and hear instead God’s love for you as you are. Listen to the needs of another person, and care for them first instead of later. Get your stuff out of the way, and let God do some work in you.
Jesus’ name means ‘God saves.’ Each one of us ‘Jesus people,’ people who try to follow Jesus, bears that name as well, secret or not. God saves. God saves me. God saves you. God saves you through me, and me through you. No one of us is complete unto ourselves; no one of us is the savior. But allowing God in us and through us to love – putting our egos to one side, and acknowledging God’s power – that’s how salvation works. That is how we honor Jesus’ name. Let the same resolution be in you that was in Christ Jesus: to love, to be consumed by love. Happy New Year.