Jan 1. Holy Name 2023
We begin a new year, eight days after Christmas, in celebration of the Holy Name of Jesus.
When Shakespeare’s Juliet asks “What’s in a name?” she is signaling that the family name of her beloved Romeo has no power to derail her love. In the rest of the world, however, one’s name is very important. In some contexts, name is destiny. While we like to think that success is connected with commitment to work or to good luck, recent studies in social psychology have found that our names have the potential to influence our behavior, appearance, career path and life choices, popularity, and even how others perceive us. Names are powerful.
In the Hebrew tradition, God’s name is both a mystery and a holy thing. Moses asks God’s name and we still don’t really know what it means. The Hebrew name of God is YHWH, four letters, Y-H-W-H. It can mean, “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be,” or “I am the one who is.” Because there is a commandment about taking Gods name in vain, Jewish people never say the name of God. When they read the bible and the four-letter name of God is there, they only say, “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” Any writing with God’s name is always treated with respect. Bibles and prayer books are never placed on the floor. Old scrolls that are no longer used are buried as if they were a person. We preserve this tradition in our Bible. When you see the word “Lord” and the last three letters are small capitals, it is our way of pointing to the original name of God. All of this is to show us the tremendous honor given to God’s name. It is a blessing that God has revealed God’s name to people – and we are still far from any sort of familiarity. God is still holy and beyond us.
This week, we commemorate the naming of Jesus. Instructed by the angel, Joseph and Mary name their first son Jesus (Yeshua). Etymologically, the name Jesus (Yeshua, or “Joshua” ) derives from Hebrew roots, translatable as “YHWH – the Lord – is salvation.” This is literally a holy name for a baby. Yeshua joins God’s name and the word for salvation to communicate that the Holy One, alone, saves people from evil by sovereign grace. He was probably not the only little boy in schul with this name. Observant Jews honored the Holy One by using this name for their sons. In his ministry as an adult, however, the name of Jesus evoked some powerful authority. Not only does Yeshua the carpenter perform miraculous healings, he invokes the name of the Almighty, YHWH, each time he says I am. (I am the bread of life. I am the good shepherd).
To the reader or listener in the 21st century, the name of Jesus makes sense in light of what we know about him now. I suspect that at the time, Jesus name, in combination with his inclination to identify himself by saying I am, may have unsettled some of the religious authorities. A holy name unsettles the status quo.
Those who follow Jesus and are baptized take upon themselves the Holy Name: a Christian is anointed in the name of Holy One, Jesus the Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever. We are called Christians. Originally, that identity was a kind of insult. We were the ones who followed that guy “Christ” who was crucified and died as a criminal. We now bear the name to remind us that we are part of Jesus and he is part of us. That holy name of Jesus, who bears the holy name of God, now lives in us. Jesus is more than a gift for us. Jesus changes us. Jesus gives us new birth. Jesus remakes us so that we begin to live with our new name – the Holy Name of God.
When the shepherds found the holy family, they proclaimed to Mary, Joseph, and all who were present what had revealed to them by angels. The shepherds became evangelists, messengers of the good news. Mary took their report to heart. Surely, it confirmed what the angel Gabriel told her in their life-changing encounter. As for the shepherds themselves, they returned to the fields praising and glorifying God. Because they believed the angel, their life would never be the same again.
We, too, are called to proclaim the holy name of Jesus in word and in deed, until he comes again. The good news inherent in Jesus’ holy name, that “Yahweh saves,” is so needed in our broken world today. May we, like the shepherds, have the courage and integrity to pass on the good news of the Holy Name of Jesus, in all its richness and simplicity to everyone God places in our paths.
B. Barbezzini. “How Our Name Affects Our Personality and Identity: What Social Psychology Says.” ExoInsight. 30 June 2022.