January 1, 2013
When we think about January 1st, usually, what comes to mind isn’t the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – also know as the Feast of the Circumcision. Nonetheless, today was the Feast of the Holy Name long before it became New Year’s Day. In fact, January 1 has only been called “New Year’s Day” since 1752. Before then, for more than a thousand years, we observed March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as the beginning of the year.
At the same time, finding some significance in the ceremony by which every Jewish male was formally given his name eight days after he was born is a bit trickier than putting up the new calendar. It’s tempting to see the whole thing as just odd; and to ask, with Romeo, “What’s in a name?” The answer, as Romeo himself found out none too happily, is that there’s a great deal in a name, and that names are pretty special things.
This may be easier to get at when we start with ourselves and our own names, and the names of people around us. After all, we not only have a name, we have quite a few of them: We have first names, and middle names, and last names and titles; many of us have married names, maiden names, nicknames, pet names, and those other names we would rather forget. And which of those names we use and the way they are used says a lot.
For example, one male priest described his family’s reaction when he was first ordained; his brothers and sisters had a ball talking about “my brother, the father,” or one sister who still sometimes calls him “Father brother.” Which is all good fun, but imagine what it would mean if he actually insisted that his brothers and sisters address him only as “father.” It would not only be weird, but also hurtful, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, he’d be saying something harsh about his relationship to them, since the names we use acknowledge and express our relationships. And second, since his name is a sort of key to who he is, insisting on a title instead of a name would be a way of hiding the real him, his personal self, from his family.
The opposite thing is going on when some 16-year-old smart aleck working in a fast-food restaurant insists on calling customers by their first names. And we all know plenty of other examples of that sort of thing.
What’s happening in all of these cases is a sort of dishonesty. These are times when names – which do turn out to matter quite a bit – get used in ways that don’t properly acknowledge and express the relationships that in fact exist; and so, an important insight into who we are and what we are about is being misused – and something false is implied.
Now, with all of this in mind, we can look at another name, the name of God the Father. Remember, God the Father has a specific name – a name he revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Depending on what translation we’re using, both the reading from Numbers and the psalm make this point more or less clearly. Both readings include God’s name, Yahweh, which is sometimes translated as “THE LORD” in capital letters. Yahweh is probably the way that the proper name of God was pronounced when it was spoken in Hebrew, but there’s some debate about that.
About 600 years before Jesus was born, and well after today’s readings from Numbers and the psalm were written, the divine name, the name God gave Moses, was not spoken in Israel, so attempts to re-create how it sounded have led to a variety of conclusions.
The name of God was not spoken, in part to keep it from being profaned – you couldn’t take the name of God in vain if you didn’t say it – but on an even deeper level, not speaking God’s name says something very important about how Israel had come to understand God, and Israel’s relationship to God.
The name of God was not spoken – and at the same time Israel came more and more to understand God as distant, as apart from his people.
In other words, Israel was no longer on a first-name basis with God; and this lack of the use of God’s name was both a way of expressing and of constituting this new, and more distant, relationship, and of removing from Israel an important key to God’s immediate presence.
This is why the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is truly important; and why it belongs right next to Christmas.
The point here is not that we’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was named “Jesus” instead of, say, “Floyd” or “George.” Instead, today we celebrate the fact that God has again spoken his name to his people – and not just as a word, but as the Word made flesh.
God has spoken his name to us as a person. Eight days after Christmas, God again gave us his name, this time with a force, a potency and a significance that overshadows Sinai, and for us, supersedes whatever Moses was told on the mountain.
For in speaking his name as “Jesus,” God has changed forever his relationship to us – from the studied formality of a name too holy to speak to the special intimacy that is implied by being on a first-name basis at its best – and more.
It’s not that in the name “Jesus” we have some kind of magic word, a sort of verbal talisman we can wave around and make things happen. That’s not it all. That’s superstitious magic. Instead, God has given us the fullness of what is only hinted at in our own names. We have been given the gift of a new relationship with God, a first-name relationship that is more intimate than casual, more immediate than informal.
And with that comes an invitation; an invitation to intimacy with God – to intimacy with all of the power, the love and the inherent connection to all of creation that are parts of who God is. Remember, the name of Jesus is the name of God the Son, and it is in the person, the whole person, of Jesus Christ that we see and know most clearly and most completely who God is, and what God is about as far as we are concerned.
So we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus for the same reason we celebrate Christmas: the promises to Mary and Joseph and Israel have been fulfilled, a virgin did conceive and bear a son, and his name most certainly means that God is with us. It is the name that is above every other name, and – in joy and thanksgiving – at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.
— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.