When Jesus was a week old, he was circumcised and given his name, just like every Jewish baby boy for thousands of years. Here in the UK, we have a secular giving of the name when the birth is registered and the child’s name is recorded for legal purposes. It makes you a real person in legal terms. Even my stillborn grandson had a name and a birth certificate. Then as Christians, we are baptised, and the minister baptises the child or the adult by name. If you are being baptised later in life, you might take on a new name, a name that represents your Christian identity. A friend of mine took on a new name when she was confirmed.
Names are important. They identify us. If you don’t know someone’s name, and you need to speak about them, it is difficult. Names are who we are.
The names that are given to western children these days often don’t have meanings, which I find very sad. My first name ‘Margaret’ comes from the Greek and means pearl. My middle name ‘Mary’ comes from Hebrew and means bitter. I was given the name because of my father’s godmother and my great grandmother, so it is a name with a history. Mary is also my mother’s name. So names often come with family associations. My mother insisted that we have saints’ names. So I also identify with Saint Margaret of Scotland and Mary the mother of Jesus. Other people might identify with cultural icons who share a name.
And all of you will have stories about your name, about how you came to have that name, and who you were named for, and what having that name has meant for you. My husband is called ‘Sheridan’, and he resented it bitterly as a child, because he was teased for it, though he has grown into the name as an adult.
In the Old Testament, names were really important. To know someone’s real name is to know who they are. When Jacob encountered an angel, the angel would not disclose his name – it is not for humans to know the nature of celestial beings. So Jacob wrestled with the angel all night. He never discovered the name of the angel, but he was given a blessing. And sometimes people were given new names at turning points in their lives, to show the start of a new life. Abram became Abraham, and Jacob became Israel.
When it came to the name of God himself, things really hotted up. For Jews, the name of God is so holy it cannot be pronounced, and because God is so great, we cannot possibly know God fully, so we cannot say God’s name, we cannot claim to know him. So Jews might refer to ‘the Lord’ or ‘the Name’. There are two words used for God in the Old Testament. One is “Yahweh”, usually referred to as ‘the name’, which represent the ruling power, the source of justice. The second is “Elohim”, which means ‘Lord of hosts’, which represents the power of creativity and mercy[i]. Even the word ‘God’ is a description and not a name.
Jesus’ name was given by the angel whom Mary encountered and again by the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream. The young couple didn’t get a choice about the name. When angels start handing out names, they are significant. The name Jesus means ‘God saves’, so it’s a name that says something about Jesus’ mission to save us and the whole human race. Matthew’s gospel also reminds us of the other name of the Messiah that was announced by the prophet Isaiah: Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’.
The name of Jesus is powerful and holy. In the Book of Acts, the disciples carried out healings and exorcisms in the name of Jesus. The Shepherd of Hermas, a Christian writer around 100 years after Jesus was crucified, said that “the Name of the Son of God is great and boundless, and upholds the entire universe.” In the Orthodox tradition of Christianity, the Jesus Prayer is a significant devotion:
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of the Living God,
Have mercy upon me, a sinner.
It is a prayer that is repeated over and over until it vibrates within us. It is not vain repetition, because you have to do it thoughtfully and prayerfully. It is real work to pray this prayer well.
Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say:
Hallowed be thy Name.
This is a prayer praising Jesus, praising God, through His Name.
In the UK, you hardly ever find someone with the name ‘Jesus’, though it is common enough in Spain. And Muslim boys do get called ‘Issa’, which is the Arabic form of ‘Jesus’. Nevertheless, the Name is really important for each one of us. We were all baptised in “the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, as Jesus himself commanded. We call ourselves Christians, a term that was first used in Antioch as an insult, and was then claimed by the followers of Jesus. We are known by the Name of Jesus the Christ.
The baby born to Mary was given the name ‘Jesus’ when he was circumcised on the eighth day, and that’s what we are celebrating today. It tells about who Jesus is, but it also starts to tell us who we are. It reminds us of how we use the Name in our prayers, and how the Name of Jesus is active in our lives and in our faith. In this New Year, make a resolution about getting to know the Name of Jesus in your heart. The Jesus Prayer and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer are printed with today’s bible readings. Use them, and you will find a blessing for 2017.
[i] Margaret Barker, Christmas: the Original Story, SPCK 2008, p 63.