Abraham means “Ancestor of many.”
Moses means “to draw out.”
Israel means, either “he struggles with God” or “God struggles.”
So, if our etymological skills are keen enough, at least from an Old Testament point of view, we can figure out the purpose of a particular patriarch or matriarch simply by reading his or her name. Of course, Abraham did indeed become the father of many. Moses, after some trials and tribulations, did draw the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the land of promise. And Israel, Jacob’s other name, given to him as he wrestled with God at Peniel, was the moniker that would be indicative of all of his descendants’ relationship with God for generations upon generations.
So with all of this said, it is safe to say names mean much more than simply that by which one is called. Names mean not only who you are, but often what you do. Our identities have as much to do with what we do as they have to do with what we are called. Smith, Cartwright, Brewer, or Cooper – all fine last names – have their roots in professions. Long ago, individuals who worked at these professions came to be so closely associated with them that what they did defined who they were – literally.
Identity means character, uniqueness, and individuality. And in our society, much of who we are and how we are perceived hasn’t changed all that much from antiquity. Upon meeting someone for the first time we inevitably ask and answer the all-important “So, what do you do?” It is a means by which we convey to others our identity. In short, where we spend the majority of our time and energy defines who we are as human beings. Who knows? Someday before too long someone may have the last name of Processor or Byte.
If Biblical names are so important in describing what purposes these august individuals served, then the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus certainly has a place in the Church’s calendar. We heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that Jesus was given “the name above all names.” And Jesus’ name means, “He saves.” It is, of course, a rendition of the Hebrew name Joshua. And if names impart identity, then Jesus’ identity is living into the fullness of his name – animating it and turning a concept like salvation into a living, breathing human being.
Mary and Joseph knew none of this as they stood with him all wrapped in swaddling clothes at the Temple, obediently presenting their first-born child for the rite of circumcision. They didn’t know what would happen thirty-some-odd years later. They had no way of knowing how their son, born in such obscurity, would live into his name. How he would be the one upon whose shoulders all hopes had been placed for millennia. All they knew was what the angel Gabriel told them, that the child would be called Jesus.
Christology is the study of Jesus Christ. And although there are vastly different approaches to Christology, most scholars agree that to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” we must first answer a foundational question: “What does Jesus do?”
Identity and purpose take on even more complex meanings when we delve into the second person of the Trinity. And as scripture tells us, it is precisely because of Jesus that God is revealed in God’s fullest. The uniqueness of the en-fleshment of God is to reveal God’s identity in a way never before seen prior to the incarnation.
The epistle to the Hebrews says Jesus is “the exact reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” is to engage the divine on a human, and therefore unique, level. To know Jesus’ name is to know something about God. And the thing we discover is that, as the Gospel of John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Through Jesus, God brought to fulfillment God’s promises of atonement or “at-one-ment” of humanity with God’s self. Through Jesus, God pioneered a pathway to the very gates of heaven that heretofore had been unassailable by humankind.
So celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is about so much more than a ritual observed in a temple 2,000 years ago by a devout Jewish family. For we realize that in Jesus, we live vicariously through his victory over sin and death. It is not just a belief system. It is not just a way of life. It is a very change in our identities.
It all begins with a simple but powerful statement. You remember: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked and Christ’s own forever.”
With that, we are given the grace to share in Jesus Christ’s victory. We are given the grace of a whole new life. We are given the grace to be called children of God, who all share the same name: Christian.