- Numbers 6:22-27
- Psalm 8
- Galatians 4:4-7
- Luke 2:15-21
You can find all the readings, in both the CEB and NRSV translations, here.
When I was born, something happened.
I am confident that something very similar happened when you born also. After all, it seems to happen with all children who are newly born into the world.
Common perhaps. But, I think it is equally a pretty special and important occurrence.
You see, I was given a name.
I have discovered that there is something rather important about that seemingly common happening.
Somewhere along the way of acquiring a new animal companion,
or along the journey of expecting a new baby or a new member of a family,
or along the journey to transition from the person who was to the person who truly is,
there is a time of deliberation and deep thought about a name.
Sometimes, other people will ask: ‘Have you thought of a name yet?’
The discovery of a new name is often a big announcement with pictures, celebration, and some measure of fanfare. Because, to have a name is a pretty special thing.
When someone, or something, is given a name, even a nickname, a couple of things happen.
According to Genesis, God created the world and all that is in it, and gave everything a name, an identity, and meaning. Including people. Adam, was created from the adamah – the earth.
Being given a name means being recognized; everything goes from being generic space to becoming a very specific vision. Being given a name means discovering an identity; a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, but it wouldn’t be what came to mind when we said ‘rose’ out loud. So, too a chair is not a zebra is not a tree is not a slice of bread – you get the point, I hope. Being given a name means learning about meaning or purpose. Look at all the people in the bible who are given new names by God – almost always a sign of God’s promise or purpose, or one’s meaning in relationship with God.
I’ve always been delighted to learn the meaning of other people’s names. And I often wonder about the inspiration behind my name – divine or otherwise.
My first name means wise.
My second name means strange or foreign.
My maiden surname means either left-handed, sinister, or it was a sarcastic and back-handed way to mean clumsy or different from the rest.
I prefer the other two more sarcastic meanings, in part because I am neither left-handed or sinister. They seem to fit better – and serve to remind me of the ironic nickname of ‘Grace’ that I am sometimes called with utmost affection.
All together, my name creates an oddly accurate definition of who I am – ‘Clumsy and Strange Wisdom that is different from the rest.’ And marriage only seemed to give me more to work with. My married name is roughly translated as a smith, with a diminutive suffix. The addition of the suffix is likely to mean that this was a family of not blacksmiths who worked in iron, but that of metalsmiths – simple craftspeople fashioning useful items.
I like to believe that marriage has taken my identity and given me a bit of purpose. I am now ‘Crafting Clumsy and Strange Wisdom that is different from the rest.’ A fledgling in a traditionally male-oriented and non-modern vocation as a pastor? A pretty fitting description. I am now sharing myself within a new relationship and the world.
All this to say that divinely-inspired or not, names are pretty darn cool and carry some pretty important messages. It is good to celebrate them because names bring us closer together and work to strengthen our relationships. And sometimes, they carry a holy message.
January first is the day we celebrate the name above all names: Jesus. This is an important day that we celebrate because we are given the space to recognize, to know, the meaning and the identity of this Son of God – a small baby born to Mary and Joseph.
Way back when Moses was striking up deep conversations and stubborn arguments with a burning bush, God was known best by God’s name: I AM. In fact, when Moses says that he can’t just show up in front of the Hebrews and announce to them that their God is talking to him because they won’t believe him at his word – God gives Moses God’s name to speak as a way to convince the Hebrews that Moses is telling the truth. One of the reasons this works is because God’s name is such a holy word that was almost never spoken by any human. To know it was to know God.
At Christmas we give a place of honour to Jesus – who is the Word of God made flesh. We profess that this birth is God reaching out and speaking words directly into the world again.
So, on the eighth day, the baby was taken to be circumcised and given a name. Not just any name, but a name chosen by God – reminding us of the days long past when God would interact personally with the people of the bible.
The name of Jesus carries a lot of weight. It’s Jeshua. Joshua. Do you remember him? He was the one who finished Moses’ work. He was the one to lead the Hebrews from the years of wandering the desert to the end of the Exodus journey. Joshua was the one to bring the children of Israel into the Promised Land.
Joshua, Jeshua, Jesus – they all mean: “God saves.”
‘Jesus’ is not a word that we speak in order to make things magically just happen. This name is more than that. Salvation through Jesus Christ is going to take a little time.
But, we do recognize that through this name the intention of God’s salvation for the world is named. And we discover that just like his namesake from the stories of old, Jesus is going to point us to something incredible. From Jesus’ life and ministry, we learn that the Word of God gets a little bit more to work with as Jesus’ name points us to the one who delivers us, rescues us, leads us, and fulfills the promise given to us: God.
God gives the world the entire fullness of a promise of rich and deeply personal relationship with God through Jesus – this Word made flesh.
It’s a pretty big name bestowed on a pretty ordinary little eight-day old baby. This pretty ordinary looking baby also brings into the world a pretty incredibly holy purpose: to save the world and to bring us all into the promised kingdom of God as children of God.
And so, the name of Jesus is also a reminder to us that through all sorts of ordinary things can come the most holy of messages:
“The ordinary life of a thirty-year-old man born in an occupied land is also the holy life of the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Ordinary people become holy pillars of a new faith: Peter, the fisherman; Mary, the girl engaged to the carpenter; Matthew, the tax collector; Mary, the woman who went to put spices on the body of the executed teacher. Sinners become saints.”
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he explains that the point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was so that we would all be made heirs of God. Our ordinary lives are made holy and extra-ordinary. Through baptism, God uses ordinary water to do something extraordinary with us: we are washed and given a new name – a new identity: Children of God – in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ table we are given another sign of God’s promise and purpose in ordinary elements of bread and wine. Which, through God, are made holy and extraordinary, and so too are we.
We celebrate today. Not only because of a name, even if it sure is nice to have that name to remind us again and again. We celebrate today that Jesus experienced the common and ordinary human practice of receiving a name. But that it was still a pretty special, important, and extraordinary thing. We recognize Jesus in the world around us which points us always to the identity of God, and we remember the meaning of that very real and very deep relationship: both the name placed over us and the arrival of the Word made flesh, dwelling among us.
May we, like Mary, treasure that and hold it deep within ourselves, in our hearts.
Let us pray:
Holy One, thank you for recognizing us from the very beginning – for giving us an identity and meaning. Thank you for reaching out into the world time and time again. We ask that as we make our way into this ordinary year, you would remind us of all that is extraordinary around us. Empower us to seek and find you in our joys and sorrow, struggles and successes. Help us to be extraordinary in someone else’s ordinary that your light and love would take root in all hearts as you continue to dwell around us and within each heart. Amen.
- Terence E. Fretheim. “Commentary on Numbers 6:22-27.” Preach This Week: 1st Reading. Working Preacher.
- James Liggett. “An invitation to intimacy with God, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2013” Sermons That Work: January 1, 2013.
- Joy J. Moore. “Commentary on Luke 2:15-21.” Preach This Week: Gospel Reading. Working Preacher.
- Rick Morley. “The feast of the Holy Name: December 26, 2011” A Garden Path.
- Anna Tew. “Holy Name: What’s in a Name?” Modern Metanoia.
- Brian Volck. “To ponder in our hearts.” Ekklesia Project.
This week’s image is a painting from around 1500 entitled “The Circumcision” by Giovanni Bellini. The subject of this painting was very popular in Venice being much copied and adapted. It is believed that this painting is an original. You can find out more about the painting here and the artist here. This image is public domain and borrowed from Wikimedia Commons. It has been adapted for the purposes of my blog.
 Anna Tew.