Alright, everybody knows it’s New Year’s day. So happy New Year! And congratulations for dragging yourself out of bed this early. That takes dedication. Of course it’s also the eighth day of Christmas, so Merry Christmas too! But what we are celebrating today is the Feast of the Holy Name.
Before our current Prayerbook Episcopalians called it the Feast of the Circumcision, which could make some people wince at its very mention. “Holy Name” is less triggering.
Luke tells us that on the eighth day of his life Jesus did undergo a bris, but it’s also the day that his name was made official. Mary and Joseph, of course, had already been told that this is the name he should have: Jesus. So they went with it.
It’s a common name with a venerable history going all the way back to the time of Moses. It’s pretty much the same as “Joshua.” The difference is a bit like the difference for us between “John” and “Jack” when we’re talking about President Kennedy. It was a common name, and in some cultures it still is.
But it’s not just any name. It’s a name full of meaning—holy meaning. It includes God’s name—Yahweh, which means something like “the one who will be here no matter what.” And it includes what Jesus’ followers have come to believe is God’s fundamental job description—saving us, drawing us from all that besets us, including ourselves, into a love that can never be vanquished. Jesus, Yehoshua, Joshua—they’re all ways saying, “God saves,” or if we go on to unpack the meaning of “Yahweh,” “the one who will be here no matter what is the one who saves, the one who draws us into a love that can never be vanquished.” It’s a name, a job description, and good news all rolled into one.
Nowadays we may not know what our names mean. And they don’t necessarily predict what we will be like. Mind you, in my case, I discovered this week, “Charles William Allen” can be translated, at least if I’m feeling mischievous, as “stubborn old gay man,” but I don’t think that’s why my parents named me that way. It can also be translated less mischievously as “resolute, cheerful, free man.” But either way, if it fits me today, that’s pretty much a coincidence.
But it’s no coincidence that Jesus’ name fits him. Joseph and Mary were told what “Jesus” means, and through them so are we—the one who will be here no matter what is the one who saves. Luke tells us that Jesus himself began living into that meaning from an early age, to his parents’ consternation, as he “increased in wisdom” (2:52). Paul quotes an early hymn that outlines how Jesus’ utterly self-giving life with us fleshed out—and still fleshes out—the saving presence of the one who will be here no matter what. That’s what his name means—this inescapable, saving presence. That’s what makes it the name above all names.
And we need that name, with all that it means, to come alive for us today. We need it to draw us out of our own self-centeredness.
And we need it to face all that besets us. Rights we may have taken for granted have been taken away. What we took to be reliable sources of information are under attack from increasingly outrageous conspiracy theories. It’s getting harder every day to pay our bills. The whole world could easily get drawn into a war that’s already devastating enough as it is. Efforts like the ones we are making to combat racism in this parish and in this Diocese are getting ridiculed with the word “woke.” Our nation is too divided to come up with a sane and just response to the growing numbers of refugees seeking asylum, just as we are too divided to do anything responsible about assault weapons. And of course that virus keeps mutating, and people keep dismissing how serious a threat that is. Maybe you would come up with a different list of ills besetting us these days. I don’t pretend to be unbiased. But I wager that people of all sorts of political persuasions tend to share a sense of feeling threatened by forces that keep eluding our best efforts to address them.
So we need the name of Jesus to come alive for us today. We gather here yearning that we might again taste and see the saving presence of God, the one who will be here no matter what. We know, of course, that God’s saving presence will not suddenly make all these threatening forces disappear. They didn’t suddenly disappear for Jesus or his early followers. But we trust that even in the face of all this, God is still relentlessly drawing us and everybody else into a love that can never be vanquished. That’s what’s saving about God’s presence, not preventing bad things from happening, but relentlessly drawing us, no matter what happens, into a love that can never be vanquished.
Sometimes when I am yearning for that saving presence, I have turned to some words of Martin Luther King, Jr., because I find in them echoes of my own experience. King said, “God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of all the dangers I have felt an inner calm. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have heard an inner voice saying, ‘Lo, I will be with you.’ When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that … in the struggle for righteousness [we have] cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power.”*
This “inner voice saying, ‘Lo, I will be with you’,” is what we hear when the name of Jesus comes alive to us, because it’s the name of God’s inescapable, saving presence, relentlessly drawing us, no matter what happens, into a love that can never be vanquished. “Name him, Christians, name him, with love strong as death.”** It’s a name, a job description, and good news all rolled into one, the name above all names. Thanks be to God.
*Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 141.
**Hymn 435, The Hymnal 1982.