Names, Feast of the Holy Name – January 1, 2018

[RCL] Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story.

One of the pleasures of reading literature is discovering the meaning of characters’ names. Authors will often give their characters names that tell us something important about who they are and about what they will do in the story. The great master of giving characters names is Charles Dickens. He gives us the policemen, Sharpeye and Quickear; the family physician, Dr. Pilkens; and the surgeon, Dr. Slasher. The Bigwig Family are the stateliest people in town, Mr. Bounderby is a self-made man and social climber, and the Reverend Mechisedech Howler is a preacher of the Ranting Persuasion.

One of the things that children seem to like about the Harry Potter stories is the names of the characters. They have fun sounds, and their meanings are none too subtle. Severus is a Latin word for “severe” or “strict,” and Professor Severus Snape is a strict teacher if ever there was one. “Malfoy” sounds like the French for “bad faith,” mal foi; and draco means “snake” or “dragon” in Latin. Put them together and you get Draco Malfoy, a real bad apple. And the headmaster Dumbledore’s first name is Albus, which means “white,” so we may suppose he is the leader of those on the side of light.

Today in our church calendar we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. In the New Testament, we are told that God is the one who gives Jesus his name. And in giving Jesus his name, God is telling us something important about Jesus’ character and the role he will play in the story of God’s love for the world.

In our gospel lesson for today, we hear that “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.” It was apparently the custom in Jesus’ day to name a male child at the time of circumcision, which was the act by which he was made a member of the people of God. That Jesus’ parents had him circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth demonstrates their piety and fidelity to the Law of Moses. The beginning of the story of Jesus is part of the larger, ongoing story of God’s love for God’s people. Jesus’ name tells us about his place in this story.

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, through the angel Gabriel, God tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son and that she is to “call him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” In naming Jesus, God is telling us something about who he is. The name “Jesus” is a Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “the Lord helps” or “the Lord saves.” When we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus, we are celebrating the one through whom and in whom the Lord helps or saves his people.

This is a rather audacious name to give to a baby. Since many of us know the end of the story, it may seem less so, but we should not overlook what an extraordinary thing the naming of Jesus is. Before his teaching and preaching, before his healings and miracles, before his death and resurrection, Jesus is already identified by God as the one through whom He will save his people. An 8-day-old baby named Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High.” In the naming of a tiny child, we already catch a glimpse God’s audacious plan to save the world through the gift of a vulnerable human being.

It may surprise many of us to learn that we have also been given an audacious name. The Catechism in older versions of the Book of Common Prayer used to begin with this question: “What is your Name?” After saying your name, you were then asked, “Who gave you this Name?” The answer to this question was to be the following: “My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” When we were given our names in baptism, we were made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

Our names, given in baptism, tell us something important about our characters and the roles we are to play in the story of God’s love for the world. Who are we? Most fundamentally, most deeply, we are beloved children of God, members of Christ, and through him heirs of the promised kingdom. How are we to live? We have our roles to play in God’s story of salvation by turning away from evil and wrongdoing, but putting our faith and trust in Christ, by believing in the articles of faith, and by keeping God’s commandments.

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story. Yes, we are vulnerable human beings with ordinary names like Harry and Sally and Sue. But we have also been given names in baptism that identify us as extraordinary participants in the story of God’s love for the world.

Today we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. It was given to him when he was eight days old, when he was circumcised and made a member of the people of God. The angel Gabriel told his human parents to name him “Jesus,” which means “the Lord helps” or “the Lord saves.” It tells us that Jesus is the one through whom God’s love will embrace the whole world. This is an extraordinary and audacious name to give to a tiny baby. It is also an extraordinary and audacious plan to save the world through a vulnerable, flesh-and-blood human being. The audacity of God’s plan continues in our own names given in baptism. Those names identify us with Jesus and his story. In his Holy Name, we claim our true identities as children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story.

This sermon, written by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano, originally ran for the Feast of the Holy Name on January 1, 2011.

Download the Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name.

The Name Given by an Angel, Feast of the Holy Name (A) – January 1, 2017

[RCL] Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

 This day that our society celebrates as the beginning of a new year has not always been so. Although the Gregorian calendar established January 1 as new year’s day as far back as 1582, in England it was not until 1752 that it replaced March 25 as the beginning of the new year. March 25, of course, is when the church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the Christ child.

And today has long been celebrated as another principal feast day of our Lord: what today we call the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In ancient Jewish tradition, a child was circumcised and named on the eighth day of life. This ritual was—and is—considered a sign of the covenant between God and his people, dating back to the time of the patriarch Abraham, about 1800 years before Christ—as documented in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis.

And vestiges of this naming ritual were retained in Christendom. In our historical baptismal liturgy, the priest would ask the parents and godparents to “name this child” before the water bath. It may seem odd to us, but—at least as far as religious institutions were concerned—children had no name at all before this official ritual naming.

Nowadays, of course, parents often choose names for their children even before birth. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For names are important to us—culturally, religiously, and individually.

Culturally, names can establish a kind of social location or ethnic heritage. Think of Seamus (“Shay-mus”), which stems from the ancient Celts, or Ashanti, which has African origins. One can be named for an iconic figure, or for a beloved elderly relative. Our names provide one clue to the time and place of our birth in the great narrative of humanity.

Religiously, names provide a means of identifying us before God—and identifying us as equal in the sight of God. Liturgically, in our prayers, at baptism, at a funeral, and even when addressing a bishop, we use our first name—what used to be called our “Christian name.” And this indicates that God knows us intimately, calls us each by name, and loves us all the same—which is to say beyond measure.

And individually, names differentiate us from others. They provide a means for us to be identified in a crowd, a way for us to refer to each other, and a means by which one can establish oneself as unique—by “making a name” for ourselves, as the expression goes.

But what difference does it make? As Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”[1]

The irony in Juliet’s speech, of course, serves to justify why the play Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy and not a romantic comedy. Were the lovers not named Capulet and Montague, the end result might have been quite different. Their names mattered.

And so, too, with Jesus.

The name Jesus, of course, is the Latin form of the Greek Iesous (“yeh-soos”), which in turn is the transliteration of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning roughly “God is salvation.”

This Jesus, good above all other, was not simply named to establish his cultural heritage as a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew. He was not named primarily to identify him to God—since he came from God, and he was God. And he was not named only to differentiate him from others.

He was named Jesus to provide us with a beacon to follow, a leader to emulate, and a way for us to move ever closer to divine goodness, grace, and mercy.

The way, the truth, and the life: Jesus, the name for which every knee should bow—here on earth, up in heaven, and under the earth in the bowels of hell.[2]

In this world so afflicted by hostility, in this age so plagued by divisiveness, in this time so overwhelmed by name-calling, the name of Jesus provides an antidote to hatred, a cure for violence, and a balm for pain.

For Jesus is the salvation of the world. And we minister in his name to the world around us. In our baptism we were claimed, adopted, forgiven, renewed, strengthened, and made members of the priestly Body of Christ, the church.

And we are now empowered to be the sign of God’s love for others. In other words, the name of Jesus is forever sealed upon our hearts. That name of Jesus within us compels us to work for justice, peace, and love for all. And the name of Jesus gives us the will and the strength to persevere in this most daunting ministry of reconciliation.

All of this we do in the name of Jesus—our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.

He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. He is called Jesus, meaning God is salvation. And he will for ever be called Jesus, the king of glory and king of peace.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates. Rev. Bates has served Episcopal and Lutheran congregations in California, New York, and New Jersey over the past two decades. He is currently on short-term disability, recuperating from both Lyme Disease and a double-knee replacement, so he welcomes your e-mail conversation at revdocbates@gmail.com.

[1] Juliet in Romeo and Juliet II.ii

[2] Philippians 2:10

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name (A).