Today we remember the Feast of The Holy Name, known in other traditions as the Feast of the Circumcision. This feast day, which occurs on Jan. 1 each year, recalls the bris for Jesus – the traditional Jewish ceremony in which a boy would be circumcised and given his name.
The ceremony comes from the Law of Moses, laid down in Leviticus, and is recounted in our Gospel reading from today in Luke 2:21: “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.”
This ceremony was significant for any Jewish boy on two levels. First, being circumcised marked the infant as a member of God’s family. It was a visible sign of being Jewish, which could be a heavy weight to carry at times in Jewish history, including the dawn of the Common Era. Second, the ceremony gave the child his name, and names in Jewish tradition, especially for boys, carried meaning.
A browse of the meaning behind Jewish names in the Old Testament reveals their significance: Abraham, meaning “father of many;” Daniel, meaning “God is my judge;” David, meaning “beloved.”
Rachel, as she was dying, named her younger son Ben-oni, meaning “son of my sorrow” – an unfortunate name he was spared by his father, Jacob, who changed the name to Benjamin: “son of my right hand.”
As significant as those names are for the characters in the Old Testament, none rival the importance of the names assigned to God.
Yahweh, or Jehovah, meaning “The I am” or “The self-existent One” is used 6,807 times in Scripture and is by far the most common name for God in the Old Testament. But it is not the only name.
Elohim, loosely translated as “The Creator,” also is common. Adonai signified “The Sovereign God.” El Shaddai meant “The Almighty God.” Each of these had different nuance, for use in referring to God at different times under different circumstances.
When we add in names that were really more descriptions of God’s attributes, there are as many as 1,000 different names and titles given for God in Scripture. For every way God might interact with the Jewish people there was a different name – a different name for the many different attributes and “moods” of God. Each name was a definition of the way in which God was seen as interacting with His people.
So, why another name? Why is the name of Jesus, this child born in a manger, so important?
The name of Jesus was important for the reason God’s many other names of the Old Testament were important: because the name reflects the role this baby will play in God’s relationship with humanity.
Of course, unlike many modern parents, Mary and Joseph did not have to argue over what name the holy baby would bear. God chose the name, assigned it to His son and gave it by angelic message to Mary before the Immaculate Conception, in Luke 1:30-33:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
The name “Jesus” is from the Hebrew Joshua, or Yehoshuah, meaning “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh will save.” The name Jesus, then, literally means “God saves.”
In giving this name, God was not just naming a child. God was not simply giving us another name for the pantheon of names we could use to define Him. God was renaming Himself, and radically redefining His relationship with each of us through that name.
In Jesus God chose to become human, to become one of us in the Incarnation. And in that humble act of pure love, God forever defined His role in the name of Jesus: God saves.
Our salvation rests on those two syllables – Jesus. The power of that name, and the importance of our devotion to it is spelled out by St. Paul in Philippians 2:9-11:
“Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him 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.”
There is no greater form of adoration and devotion, no way of more fully embracing the name of Jesus, than that we make in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
Each of us has a name given to us by our parents. But in our Baptism, and in Confirmation, we accept the name into which we were made before we were conceived. In Baptism we accept new birth “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
In commemorating The Holy Name we remember not just the name of a Messiah that lived, died, was resurrected and ascended 2,000 years ago. We remember the name that lives within us, that lives through us.
We are saved, because of Jesus: because God saves. And that salvation lives on, in the hearts, and in the hands and feet of all who live the name Jesus.
In closing, I turn to a prayer for The Most Holy Name, by Thomas A Kempis:
“O sweet Name of Jesus, holy above all names in heaven and on earth, and to which every knee, both of men and of angels in heaven, on earth and in hell bends. You are the way of the just, the glory of the saints, the hope of those in need, the balm of the sick, the love of the devout and the consolation of those that suffer.
O, Jesus be to me a help and a protector so that your Name may be blessed for all times…”