We know very little about Jesus’ childhood. There is nothing in Mark or John. From Matthew, we learn that an angel told Joseph to name Mary’s child “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This, he reports, they did, and then he relates the account of the Wisemen’s visitation, followed by the flight of the family to Egypt and their moving to Nazareth.
Luke provides the most detail, beginning with the birth in Bethlehem that we hear during the Christmas liturgy. Then he gives us the brief story from today’s gospel, followed by an account of Jesus being presented in the temple a few weeks later. Finally, Luke tells us about the 12-year-old Jesus, again at the temple, confounding religious teachers with wisdom beyond his years. He ends with a summary: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”
That’s it, until he emerges fully grown, prepared for the Baptism of John and the beginning of his ministry. So, our little snippet of information today is quite important within such a limited body of knowledge of Jesus’ first three decades of life. One sentence: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Our prayer book deems it so valuable that whenever the eighth day of Christmas, January 1, occurs on a Sunday, Holy Name takes precedent over the regular liturgical day. We commemorate the occasion when Jesus was circumcised and when he was named.
His circumcision reminds us that he was reared as a Jew, a peculiarly religious people in a remote area of the great Roman Empire. We recall that the very formation of Christianity grew out of Jewish roots, and our “old” Testament is the Hebrew Bible. This was the Scripture that Jesus learned in his formative years and which he used so effectively by reference and fresh interpretation in his ministry. One thought about the divinity of Jesus is that his was a fully, completely faithful Jew in every way, carrying out the will of God in perfection, becoming the human presence of God. So, the gospel focus and the liturgical importance of this day emphasize our intentional connection with our ancestors of ancient Judaism.
Still, we are Christians transformed by the Holy Spirit from such roots and empowered within our own unique understanding of God’s relationship with his people. Like the Jews of old who found in circumcision less a form of surgery and more a way to distinguish themselves as a special people, we characterize ourselves by other actions. Early on in our development, we decided that a gentile convert did not have to be circumcised. For Christians, we have our own mark of identity; our equivalent of circumcision is baptism. We, too, are named within this formative sacrament, and we declare ourselves united with others of the Body of Christ through sacred vows and the recitation of the Baptismal Covenant.
The name given to our Savior at his formational service was divinely ordained, as witnessed by the angel who told Joseph to take Mary as a wife and name the child she would bear “Jesus,” as a promise that he would save his people – save them from their own sinfulness. And so, the name became a holy one for all time and for all humanity. Jesus – as the one who connects our humanness to all that is God – saves us from the selfish, sinful nature that is so easy for us, alone, to give in to. The name of Jesus is so important that Saint Paul instructs us in today’s epistle that it is “above every name.” It is so sacred that “at the name of Jesus, ever knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
The name of Jesus has been used for centuries, especially by members of the Eastern Church, as a form of meditation of the highest order. The “Jesus Prayer,” coming “from the heart,” allows meditating Christians to delve into the depth of faith in a mystical way. Repeating over and over again the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” enables the one who prays to focus on the essentials of faith and live life in the keeping of our Lord. The nearly subconscious repetitive focus on Jesus, the one with the Holy name, enlightens and enlivens the believer to connect with the Savior in deepening one’s spirituality and finding motivation to provide for the needs of God’s children.
Obviously, “Jesus” is a name unlike yours or mine – or anyone else’s. It is reserved for the Savior. This would logically lead all who are aware of the epistle to the Philippians to refrain from naming a child “Jesus.” But if it is so unique, why are there so many boys and men in Christian-oriented Hispanic communities with this as a given name? Anglos are often surprised to encounter them, though such individuals are called by the Spanish pronunciation – “Hay-SOOS.” This confusion is explained by understanding that such cultures use “Jesus” differently from other Christians, because it is for them just another common name for males. When they refer to the Savior in the gospels, the one circumcised and named on the eighth day, they do not use “Jesús” but “JesúCristo.” Therefore, with such a practice in place, this leaves everyone in virtual agreement that “Jesus” of the Christian faith remains a name not only above all others but also prohibited from use as a given name among contemporary people.
When pregnant parents contemplate the future of their child, they often spend a great deal of time deciding on the newborn’s name, a permanent imprint. Some name them after a favorite ancestor; others select something because they like the sound. A few choose the name of a famous person whose memory and value they want to perpetuate in the new life, hoping the child will live up to the values of the namesake.
Maybe, just maybe, we have it wrong in making “Jesus” out of bounds for such a task. Maybe we should give everyone the middle name “Jesus.” In this way, each of us would carry the Holy Name on our birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports. Jesus would become more solidly a part of our identity. This might help us remember the invisible cross placed by a priest on our foreheads at baptism, marking us forever as a possession of JesúCristo. With a name like Jesus to live up to, wouldn’t our Christian lives become much more enriched?
Today’s gospel reveals to us an infant Jesus, an 8-day-old with nothing to show for himself other than a circumcision and a name. But we know that the truth is much more than that: the child had within him all the promise and possibility that God holds for all creation. Most of the time we, like the 8-day-old Jesus, live by hope and promise, because leading a Christian life is not an easy task. Like the infant, though, we have within us all the possibility that God gives to all his children, the possibility of being one with Jesus and literally living as Jesus did.
When Paul charged us to bow at the name of Jesus, he did not simply intend a proper gesture in church. To honor his Holy Name, we must act, we must emulate, we must follow our Savior in the walk he made on this earth, among people not unlike our neighbors. Today, the liturgical calendar gives us something significant to think about on the secular calendar’s New Year’s Day – something besides football games and overcoming the effect on last night’s partying. Maybe we can use the beginning of 2012 to vow to spend every day of it remembering not only that the Name of Jesus is like no other name and that it is Holy, but also to remember that it summarizes all that our Savior is and all that we can become – if we follow him.