By virtue of the way calendars work and by vice of how hard we like to party on New Year’s Eve, The Feast of The Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ is often overlooked. How many of us wake up around noon on New Year’s Day with a throbbing headache thinking “Darn it! I overslept going to church today?” It probably does not help us that our liturgical calendar seemingly conspires to diminish its significance by sandwiching the day between Christmas and Epiphany, with the Feast day of Stephen and John and the Holy Innocents tossed in for good measure. Fortunately, this year, the day coincides with a Sunday, so more people will tend to be in church reminding themselves of the story and its importance to us.
Our Gospel lesson from Luke is very short. There is no talk of Simeon’s or Anna’s joy at beholding the babe. We are told simply that the shepherds responded to the angel’s declaration by going to see the baby, that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, in keeping the torah (Lev. 12:3; Gen 17:11-12), and that he was officially named. No fancy speeches, no amazing sights, if one remembers that the angels have departed by the beginning of our reading.
As the father of seven children and the pastor of those who sometimes have children of their own, I can tell you that the naming of a child is an interesting experience. Sure, for Karen and me, the first few were easy. I liked Elizabeth, she liked Sarah. I liked Nathan, she liked James. They mashed together right nicely. Unfortunately, that left us with five more sets of names to come up with! You all know the pressure. What names do we choose? If we choose one family name, do we offend others in the family? Is the name easy to make fun of? We have to worry about teasing, right? Is the alliteration hokey? Do we someone with the same name that makes it impossible to use that name (Timothy is out in my family for a couple generations, I figure)? And who among us does not shake their heads when a “celebrity” names their child uniquely or, as I saw in the papers a couple weeks ago, someone chooses a horrible name like Hitler? Then there is the question of meaning. Does the meaning sound like something we want a child to become? It is a tough decision.
We may think that Mary and Joseph had it easier. After all, God had already declared that His Son’s name would be Jesus. But, should they not have named Him after a favorite uncle or father in the family? But, inexplicably to the extended family, they choose the name Jesus, God saves. Can you imagine the shock and horror? You’re going to call my grandson, my nephew, my whatever, God saves? Are you out of your mind? What kind of a name is that? What kind of pressure are you placing on him, poor thing? But Mary and Joseph are obedient to God’s instruction, just as they try to be obedient to God in all things in their lives. The woman who said “Let it be done with me as according to your word” and the man who “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him,” unsurprisingly, obey God once more, well twice really. They take Jesus to the synagogue to be circumcised in accordance with the torah and they name the babe Jesus.
With one fell swoop, think of how the distance between God and humanity was closed. Prior to John the Baptizer’s appearance, God had been silent since the days of Micah. His revealed names, Yahweh, Elohim, and even Jehovah were more descriptive titles than actual names. But in one fell swoop, God bridges the gulf. Prior to this point in history, much of the attention has been, rightly so, on God’s otherness, His holiness, and His transcendence. It is, perhaps, no wonder that the Temple leadership focused on appearances rather than hearts because it was hard for them to conceive of His heart, His caring. But in a simple name, much of God’s plan is revealed. God saves. He does. All of Scripture reminds us of that simple truth. Now, the name of the Incarnation will remind us as well. Every time we read a story about Jesus, we should be reminding ourselves that God saves.
But names also close distances. Names connote a bit of familiarity. Titles remind us of jobs and hierarchies. Names remind us that the other is a person as well. Titles focus us on responsibilities and offices. Names relate us. “Brian” implies a different relationship between you and me than does “Father,” just as “bishop” and “Alan” imply a different relationship between us and him as well. To be sure, there are times when we need to remind ourselves of titles and positions, but there are also times when you and I must be reminded that the "other" is simply human like ourselves. And in this one instance we read about today, none other than the maker of heaven and earth is taking a name for Himself, God saves. No more are we to think of Him as some force or power or officeholder sitting out there impersonally, sight unseen; rather, we are called to remember His glorious name, God saves, and His desire to meet each and every one of us, His desire to be known by us intimately, to the glory of the Father. In a simple name, God saves, we are reminded of the purposes of God and His intention. No more will we be left to flounder in silence. Instead, we will be encouraged to call upon Him by name, and know that He hears us, as a God and as a human, who this day has shed blood for the first time in His efforts to walk in the love that leads to Calvary for all our sakes.