If we start with Christmas Day, December 25, and count eight days, we come to today, January 1. It is on the eighth day of Christmas that the church celebrates the Holy Name of Jesus.
We celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus on this eighth day of Christmas because it was on the eighth day that Jesus was circumcised and received this name. This story is told in a single verse of the gospel we just heard.
The shepherds, summoned by an angel, have visited the baby in the manger. They return home, praising God for what has happened. Then comes the focus of today’s celebration. “After eight days had passed,” we hear from the gospel, “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
“It was time to circumcise the child.” Following the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph have their child circumcised on the eighth day. Thus he becomes a participant in the covenant, a son of Israel.
Circumcision brings with it the shedding of blood. What happens to Jesus on his eighth day is the the first small step in the shedding of his blood for the redemption of the world.
His blood will be shed abundantly when his life draws to it close.
• In the Garden of Gethsemane he will pray so urgently that his sweat will resemble clots of blood falling to the ground.
• Blood will drip when he is scourged with whips by Roman soldiers, and when they press a crown of thorn branches deep into his head.
• Blood will drip as he carries his cross on the long walk to Calvary, and when spikes are driven through his feet and hands.
• And blood will drip even after he is dead, when the sharp point of a Roman lance cuts into his heart.
The blood shed at his circumcision is only a small beginning, the promise of what awaits him.
But something more than circumcision happens to Jesus on his eighth day. He receives his name. Among the Jews, circumcision is when a boy is named.
The name Jesus receives is heavy with significance. It is the same as that of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who leads Israel into the land of freedom. The name means literally “The Lord is salvation.” This is the name that Gabriel, at the Annunciation, tells Mary to name her child. It is the name that Joseph is told to name the child by an angel who appears to him in a dream.
And so it is not a name thought up by the baby’s parents. It is a name that comes from God. The name of the Savior, the salvation he brings, and he himself all come from God.
We would miss the significance of the name of Jesus if we took that name as only a label, a way to distinguish one person from the next. The name of Jesus points us to who he is, who he is for us: the Savior, the one who delivers us, rescues us; leads us, as did the Old Testament Joshua, into a land of freedom, a different way of life.
The name of Jesus is, as today’s collect states, “the sign of our salvation.” Given to us by God, this name is a verbal sacrament, something spoken that conveys to us the grace of God. When this name is used by us with faith and reverence, it is for us a prayer. Indeed, of all prayers it is the best. No other prayer is so simple. None is so great.
Do you want to pray, my friends? Not only with your lips, but from your heart? Then use this holy name. Whatever your condition, whatever your circumstances, this holy name can be your prayer.
Say the name of Jesus with faith and reverence many times each day. Let this prayer, this name, rise and fall with the rhythm of your breath. JESUS! JESUS!
Let the name of Jesus become for you a holy habit, a second nature. You will never wear out this word. You will find in this great name enough sweetness and consolation, enough courage and joy to last you a lifetime, whatever may come upon you. The saints of the church from many centuries and many countries bear witness to the power and renewal they have found in making the name of Jesus their frequent, oft-repeated prayer.
There is a story about the power in this prayer, a story recounted by a member of the Dominican Order, Paul O’Sullivan.
The year is 1432. The place is Lisbon, Portugal. A terrible plague has broken out. All who are able to do so, flee from the city, and thus they carry the plague to every corner of the country. Thousands of men, women and children are swept away by the cruel disease. People die from it everywhere – at table, in the streets, in their houses, in shops, in marketplaces, in the churches. From one person to the next it spreads, or from a coat, hat or any garment used by the plague-stricken. So many people die from the disease that bodies lie unburied in the streets of the city.
Among those left helping the sick is a bishop named Andre Dias. He sees that the plague grows worse each day, so he urges the people, both those dying and those not yet afflicted, to repeat the Holy Name of Jesus. “Write it on cards,” he said, “and keep these cards on your persons; place them at night under your pillows; put them on your doors; but above all, constantly invoke with your lips and in your hearts this most powerful Name.”
Bishop Dias goes about as an angel of peace, filling the sick and dying with courage and confidence. The poor sufferers feel within them a new life. Calling on Jesus, they wear the cards on their persons and carry them in their pockets.
Before long, the sick begin to improve, those near death rise from their beds, the plague ceases, and the city is delivered from the worst suffering ever to inflict it.
The news spreads across the entire country. Soon everyone is praying the Holy Name of Jesus. In a very short time, all Portugal is free from the dread disease. Grateful for what has happened, the people continue to love and trust the Holy Name, to call on and honor the Name of their Savior.
What happened in Lisbon was not magic or superstition. It was what all prayer is: not an attempt to change God’s mind, but an opening of ourselves to God’s purpose. The people of Lisbon prayed fervently the name of Jesus, opened themselves to divine mercy to a remarkable degree. They became different. Their world became different.
We can become different, our world can become different, through an increasing reliance on the Holy Name, a fervent praying of the Holy Name. What are the plagues that beset us as individuals, families and as a society? Do these afflictions make us indifferent, apathetic, cynical? Or do they drive us to prayer and to action that reflects our prayer?
A new year lies before us. We do not know what it contains. But we can pray with fervor the Holy Name of Jesus.
• Perhaps some of us will die during the new year. We can leave this life at peace with God, with the name of Jesus on our lips.
• Some of us may face great trials. We can meet them confidently, with the name of Jesus on our lips.
• Some of us may experience wonderful joys, new opportunities, unique blessings. We can express our gratitude, with the name of Jesus on our lips.
A new year lies before us. May it be for each of us a year when we pray our Savior’s Name with faith and fervor, a year when we discover that this world can be a very different place through the power of the Holy Name.
— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).