THE SUNDAY BETWEEN THE CIRCUMCISION AND THE EPIPHANY
THE MOST HOLY NAME OF JESUS – In nomine Jesu
Introit: (Phil 2) At the Name of Jesus let every knee be bowed, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth: and let every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Ps. (8) O Lord our Governour, how excellent is thy Name in all the world. Glory be … At the Name of Jesus …
Collect: O God, who didst appoint thine only-begotten Son to be the Saviour of the world, and didst command that he should be called Jesus: mercifully grant, that we, who venerate his holy Name on earth, may at length rejoice to behold him in heaven; where he liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
OT Lesson: The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian. For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgement and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9.2-7)
Gradual: (Ps. 106) Deliver us, O Lord our God, and gather us from among the heathen: that we may give thanks unto thy holy Name, and make our boast of thy praise. V. (Is. 63) Thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer: thy Name is from everlasting.
NT Lesson: In those days, Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said: Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, if we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. (Acts 4.8-12)
Alleluia. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord: and let all flesh give thanks unto his holy Name for ever and ever. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: It came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard itwondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (St Luke 2.8-14)
“And thou shalt call his name JESUS, for he shall save his people from their sins.”
“What’s in a name?” asks Juliet in Shakespeare’s play. Part of the fun in reading fictional literature is in discovering the significance of the characters’ names. Authors will often give their characters names that tell us something important about who they are and what they will do in the story. The great master of interesting and significant character names is undoubtedly Charles Dickens, but he is by no means unique. The names sound funny, and their meanings are usually none too subtle. J. K. Rowling has continued this tradition in her Harry Potter stories. For some people, the choosing of a baby name is very important. For others, it doesn’t seem to mean so much—they just like the sound of it, or it happens to be trendy at the moment. For still others, names appear to be given as some sort of cruel joke. But in the Bible, the choosing of a name is not just important, it is momentous. “What’s in a name?” Well, a very great deal, as it turns out. Throughout the Middle East, and in many other countries and cultures, to this very day, people choose names for their children very carefully, because the name should describe or define some aspect of a child’s character or identity, and even portend who or what they will become. For these cultures, names are very powerful, and carry with them a part of the person or thing named. In short, your name is who you are. The Bible contains remarkable stories demonstrating the power of naming. God creates the world by naming “light,” “day,” “night,” “heaven,” and “earth.” The act of naming is the first vocation given to Adam, who names all the living creatures that inhabit the earth.
In the ancient world, the power of a name was very real, because the essence of a being resided in its name, and to name something, particularly a supernatural being like a god or demon, was to control it in some sense, so as to manipulate it into serving one’s own purposes. Magicians’ spells often included dozens of divine or demonic names, in hopes that at least one of them would hit the mark and force a supernatural being into bringing about the desired result. And lest we think that this is merely primitive superstition, this same technique is often used in modern psychology today—to name our fears or our “demons” is to gain control over them. Perhaps the best illustration of the importance and power of names in the Bible is the third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” which comes with the ominous warning, “for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” God is Holy and therefore God’s Name is Holy, and to misuse God’s Name is to blaspheme God. The entire essence of God’s being was carried in His Name. Thus in Jewish tradition, this Name is never even to be pronounced. You may be interested to know that that is where the name “Jehovah” comes from. Since the Hebrew alphabet has no vowels, only the four consonants were written, and this name was known (in Greek) as the Tetragrammaton—literally, “the four-letter word”—consisting of the equivalent of I-H-V-H. Vowels are represented in Hebrew by a series of dots and dashes, under, above, and between the letters. In order to remind the reader not to pronounce this ineffable Name of God, the vowel points for another word – “Adonai” (my Lord) – were substituted. Then in the Middle Ages, scholars who were apparently unaware of this Jewish convention, transliterated the Name using the proper consonants but with the vowel sounds as written – the vowels for “Adonai” – and thus produced the name “IaHoVaH.” The Name itself has not been uttered for so long that nobody actually even knows how to pronounce it. When the ancient scribes penned this Holy Name of God, they went through ritual cleansing before and after its writing. Modern-day devout Jews, even when writing in English, will not write the words “God” or “Lord,” but write instead, “G_d” or “L_d,” and when speaking, will substitute “ha-Shem”—“the Name.” This, by the way, presents an ironic contrast with many modern Christians who, in an effort to be “inclusive” and “gender-neutral,” refuse (or are not allowed, as is the case in most theology schools and in scholarly publications) to use pronouns, and so their sentences become punctuated with “God … God … God,” even to the point of inventing non-words such as “Godself,” and where “Lord” is strictly verboten. One cannot help but wonder at what point this becomes “taking the Name in vain,” or at the very least, cheapening that which is to be held in reverence?
Names are important, and powerful. A name in the Bible tells much about who and what a person is, or is to become, and often, people—notably kings—did not live up to their names, bringing shame not only upon themselves but upon the entire nation, sometimes for generations. And names are frequently changed to mark momentous turning points in a person’s life. God changed Abram’s name to “Abraham” which means “the father of many,” and Jacob (“supplanter”) to “Israel” (“he who wrestles with God”). Jesus changed Simon’s (“he who hears”) name to Cephas or Peter (“a rock”). Saul (“besought”) of Tarsus changed his name to Paul (“little”). And the list goes on—names which mark a dramatic shift in a life’s trajectory, a new beginning, a new mission, bound in faith to the God who named them.
In Europe and North America, we have all but forgotten the concept of naming children symbolically, expressing hope and faith for their future through their names. But I went to school with a young Ghanaian man, whose name translated as “Love.” He told us how his people (if Christian) choose Biblical names to be given at Baptism, typically names like Love, Hope, Peace, Patience, etc., and he remembered times when his father would say to him or a sibling who was misbehaving, “Your mother and I chose that name for you, and you need to be giving thought to how you will fulfil its meaning!” Names in his culture still possess this Biblical sense of epitomizing a destiny which God seeks to fulfil in the bearer.
Last week, we celebrated newness in the birth of a child in a manger. Eight days later, this child was circumcised according to the Mosaic Law. This was a moment in Jewish life when a male child came to be part of God’s covenant people and received a name which would indicate his role within that Covenant. Parents were typically filled with hope and excitement as God opened the door of the future to their child. A “good” name would say something about whom the parents hoped and prayed their child would become. “Jesus,” of course, is Latin, from Greek. Mary and Joseph spoke Aramaic Hebrew, and Our Lord’s Name was actually יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Jehoshua), which means IHVH’s Salvation, or IHVH Delivers. This name has significant portent, but in recovering our Saviour’s Hebrew name, we find even deeper significance, for “Joshua” is both a harkening back, and a glance down the road, all at once. “Joshua” should immediately recall the great patriarch, who picked up Moses’ mantle, finished the journey of the Exodus, and brought the Children of Israel into the Promised Land. Let that sink in for a moment. That name, “Joshua,” both points back to the saving acts of God in ages past AND points forward to the saving acts which will in years to come occur on Golgotha and in an empty tomb. Long before His teaching and preaching, long before His healings and miracles, long before His death and resurrection, Jesus is already identified by God as the One through whom He will save His people. When Mary and Joseph, following the instructions of the Angel Gabriel, named this child, their hope was that this Baby had come to save and deliver their people. This says a lot about this Holy Child and the expectations and hopes that rest on His shoulders. He would be known as God’s Salvation, the Rescuer. Little did they know how this name and role would ultimately play itself out – for in the humiliating rejection by His own people, leading to His crucifixion and death, God would cancel out all the failure and guilt resulting from human self-centredness, He would blot out and remove completely the sin of the entire world, and in His mighty resurrection, He would open those dead-end streets, creating a highway leading to life eternal. On the day this Child was named, God already had this destiny in mind. There is certainly power in that name!
But even more so, in giving that name to this Child. For He was not just Mary’s firstborn, He was the incarnation of God Himself – God here among us. The world into which Jesus was born knew only a God who was distant from the people, so other-worldly that His Name could not even be spoken, so Holy that no one could see His face and live. Moses covered his face from the burning bush, for he believed that if he looked upon it, he would die; Elijah tried to glimpse this same God who was not found in gale force winds, earthquakes, nor firestorm, but only in the still small voice. Imagine it! God in our very flesh; this same God, as a tiny helpless infant, walking and working and growing up on earth! Throughout the Old Testament, we see a God who, at least to some people’s minds, seems to be vengeful and full of wrath. But as we dig deeper, especially in the prophets, we see that this is not the case. Rather, our God is a Father who only ever wanted us to love Him with all our being and to treat each other with love and respect. In actual fact, it was not God who was ruthless and vengeful, it was humanity, because they would not listen to Him. God sent messengers to warn them of the consequences of their actions. He sent prophets to call the people to repent and turn back to Him. Nothing seemed to work, until God humbled Himself and assumed our mortal nature – He clothed Himself in our skin. We hear about this great mystery from St Paul: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2.5-11). God became one of us so that He could show us how to love, forgive, and live as God wants us all to live. Jesus came into the world to redeem us from slavery to sin and to show us the face of a loving God, to show us how to be God-like. Christ became the bridge that brings us closer to our heavenly Father.
The more devoutly we reverence and call upon the Name of Jesus, the more will our Saviour show His love toward us. “My Jesus,” exclaimed St Augustine, “so soon as I begin to utter Thy Name, I perceive an unearthly sweetness in my mouth, and an amazing change of heart.” “The Name of Jesus,” said St Bernard, “is as honey in the mouth, a sweet sound in the ears, and a joy to the heart.” The Name of Jesus is precious and consoling in all the pains and sufferings of this transitory life, but it is sweetest of all at the hour of death. With the Name of Jesus on their lips, the great Saints of God breathed forth their souls. As we heard last week, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” was St Stephen’s latest breath as they were stoning him, and so he died in the Lord. “Jesus, my love!” sighed the holy martyr Ignatius of Antioch, as they led him to his death, to be torn asunder by wild beasts. When they ordered him to deny the Name of Jesus, he replied, quietly and firmly: “I will never cease to utter His Name. And if you could prevent me from pronouncing it with my mouth, you could not efface it from my heart.” Confessing most fervently the Holy Name of Jesus, the godly Bishop died the glorious death of a martyr. And such is true of countless others.
In Baptism, God adopts us as His own and opens the future to us as members of His eternal family. In the waters of Baptism, we are drowned to a way of life that should have no control over us, and re-born to a new life, even as we daily claim Christ’s resurrecting power in our lives. The Prayer Book Catechism begins with this question: “What is your Name?” After stating your name, you are then asked, “Who gave you this Name?” The answer to this question is to be: “My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” Thus our names, given in Baptism, tell us something important about our characters and the roles we are to play in God’s mission. Our “Christian names” identify us with Jesus and His story. In His Holy Name we claim our true identities as children of God and inheritors of His kingdom. Who are we? Most fundamentally, most deeply, we are beloved children of God, and members of Christ’s Body, and we are to live accordingly. Christ has placed His Name upon us, and, in the words of my Ghanaian friend’s father, “you need to be giving thought to how you will fulfil its meaning!” We each have our roles to play in God’s story of salvation by turning away from evil and wrongdoing, by putting our faith and trust in Christ, by believing in the articles of faith and keeping God’s commandments, but especially by unashamedly confessing the Holy Name of Jesus before the world.
On this feast of the Holy Name, perhaps we might consider the power of names. Names can be used to build up or to destroy. What we call others affects them, sometimes profoundly, and the names we use can be means of blessing or cursing. Bearing in mind those names or labels others have given to us over the years and how they have affected us for good or ill, we might ask ourselves: What names have we affixed to others to hurt or tear them down? And how could we name them in ways that would bless and honour them, and thereby bless and honour Our Lord?
A new year lies before us. May it be for each of us a year when we pray our Saviour’s Name with faith and fervour, a year when we discover that this world can become a very different place through the power of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.
“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”
Collect: Almighty God, who by thy blessed Apostle hast taught us that there is none other name given among men whereby we must be saved, but only the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may ever glory in this Name, and strive to make thy salvation known unto all mankind; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May he who by his Incarnation joined heaven to earth and earth to heaven, fill you with his joy and peace; And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.