Names have meaning
The Feast of the Holy Name, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 2:15-21
Names have meaning. Many of us know this to be true to some extent. When we think of our name, I’d imagine many of us know why we received our name. It could be that we are named after a relative or a person our parents respected. For example, our son is named after both of his grandfathers; William and Laurence. Sometimes we are named after people that our parents really didn’t know but they liked the sound of the name or the idea behind it. My mother named me from the song “Good King Wenceslas,” who looked out on the Feast of Stephen. And am I thankful that the name Stephen caught her attention more than Wenceslas.
As parents, we know the struggle with finding just the right name. Often perspective parents look through books containing a myriad of names. They search out the name’s historic meaning or derivation. For example if I look up Amy, I find that it means Beloved. Names can also change over time. I have friends and relatives, who I grew up, with who had nicknames but at some point they chose not to use their nickname anymore and be called by their given name. Though in some cases it is impossible to call someone by another name.
Changes in life can be a cause for receiving or taking on a new name. Often one person when getting married will take on the name of the other. In part, this symbolizes their commitment to the marriage and their unity as a family. People in monastic orders or even the Pope often take on new names to better reflect who they see God is inspiring them to be.
Names are not only important for us but for most cultures. A name doesn’t only represent the hopes that parents have of the child. Names can change over time based on the community around them. As one writer for Psychology Today reports, Native Americans seem to have the most complicated naming tradition. The name changes over time with the person. “Children receive names that are descriptive, they may be given new names at adolescence, and again as they go through life according to what their life experiences and accomplishments are. Society bestows a new name–a new name is earned.” In some cases “Native Americans also have secret sacred names that only the individual and the medicine man know.”(1)
Even if we do not normally think about it, names today are just as important as they were in times long ago. But there is at least one difference. Nowadays many people name their child before they are born. This was nearly impossible before the days of ultrasound.
In the Jewish tradition, as we read today, a boy is named on the eighth day of their birth. This naming happens at the same time as circumcision during a ceremony called a Bris. This waiting to name your child may seem strange to us, but a Bris, in a real way, is akin to Baptism. Both are an act that binds a person and initiates them into a covenantal relationship with God. So as Christians, we find that through the ritual baptism we are adopted as God’s own, initiating us into a covenantal relationship.
Jews see circumcision as a sign of their covenantal relationship with God as God’s chosen people. As one rabbi says in regards to telling people the name of their son prior to the bris, “In a metaphysical sense… the child does not actually "receive" his name until the Bris.”(2) “The boy only receives the full measure of his soul at the Bris, and a person cannot truly be "named" until attaining that completion.”(3) We see that the naming and circumcision are part of the same act of initiating a child into the faith or relationship with God.
As we read in today’s gospel Jesus’ parents were good faithful Jews who follow the tradition. We celebrate the name of Jesus on this day because it is eight days after his birth, and we celebrate his name for several reasons. Unlike some of us, Mary and Joseph didn’t spend countless hours searching in a book or talking with friends and relatives about the name to give their baby. They received the name from an angel that met Joseph in a dream. He is told to name the baby Jesus and like most of the people in the Bible, his name has a specific meaning. Jesus is a Greek translation of the name Yeshua or Joshua, meaning Savior or the Lord saves. And this is a prediction of who this boy will become. He becomes our Savior, and because Jesus is our savior his name caries additional meaning as well.
Jesus, before his birth, was in the form of God, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. In this kenosis or self-emptying, Jesus takes himself from the highest form of existence to the lowest form. I think this is akin to God being the Alpha and the Omega; the Beginning and the End. But instead of being on a seeming linear track of time this is a vertical change of status. He is still fully God, but now he is also full human. In his humanness he chose to be a lowly human not a powerful one. I heard someone once say that Jesus had to be lower than us so that when we fall he will always be able to pick us up. In this respect we celebrate his name for its prophetic telling of who he is and what he has done for us.
His name also conjures up other thoughts. From Philippians, we read that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.” Now before we go too deep, I’d like to point out that this passage from Philippians is a song and we should treat it as such and not be too literal with it. But like many good songs the words express meaning through their poetry. The Idea of bending the knee or bowing at the name of Jesus is trying to express that Jesus is our Lord and as such we owe him gestures of respect.
There are people who out of a sense of devotion or personal piety do bow at the name of Jesus. The Roman church says that this is the appropriate gesture for everyone to follow. For some who witness this action, it may seems unusual or over the top. But when we think of who Christ is in our lives, or when we desire more of Christ in our lives, we may find that this small simple action reinforces the meaning of who he is. By making this physical action, a simple bow of the head every time we hear his name, we may pay more attention to what is being said about Christ. We are reminded that there are realities that go beyond our understanding in which we can reverence our Lord for who he is. Jesus is our Lord.
In our free and democratic society this can be difficult. We do not like to see ourselves as subjects to anyone. To some extent, our independence allows us to believe that we are better than most others or at least have the ability to achieve a higher status. This can be seen in writings comparing western individualism to eastern collectivism, where our culture tends to think about the individual before the group as a whole. As Americans we are proud to have created a country that is free from the feudal role of a monarch; free from servitude and there is nothing wrong with this at all. But if we look beyond our society or government and into the realm of God; our deep faith in the Christian tradition demonstrates that we should see ourselves as God’s subjects. We have been given the free will to practice our faith, to empty ourselves much like Christ did, and give ourselves over to God. In doing so we find that we are not the all-powerful human beings that we often believe we are. We understand who God is, who Christ is in our lives and as such we can practice some sort of reverence to the name of Jesus.