Sunday, January 01, 2017

"What's in a Name?"

Holy Name of Jesus
Numbers 6.22-27; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

In Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II, Juliet says “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The reference is often used to imply that the name of something, or in this case, someone, does not affect what a thing or who a person really is. Logically speaking, maybe so. A name is merely an arbitrary designation to facilitate communication. But with all due respect to the Bard, names do indeed say something about who a person is. Sometimes significantly so. And therefore makes a difference.

I speak from personal experience. After all, I have a pretty complicated and sometimes convoluted relationship with my own name. My full name is Michael Kevin Fincher. I won’t go into all the whys and wherefores of how I use my name, but my family has always called me Kevin. The only time I heard Michael was when I was in really big trouble – when Mom would generally call me Michael K. Fincher. If I got the full Michael Kevin Fincher then I better head for the hills. Up until I was in high school, I went exclusively by Kevin with friends and at school. Then in high school, I switched to Michael and was generally called Mike. I was also Mike in college. But I went by Kevin in a part-time job I had. When I got out of college and started working professionally as a transportation planner, I went by Kevin. But in church I was sometimes Mike and sometimes Michael. And when I entered into the process toward ordination, I went to Michael. And now, as a priest, I am Father Michael.

My name usage reflects something of my own history. The name used reflecting where I was in my own life’s journey. Even now, people from different times in my life call me by whatever name they originally met me as. In this way, the name I am called also reflects something of the relationship I have with particular people. Yes, it can be confusing. Why, on occasion, even I get confused as to who I am with a particular person. But it has become such a part of who I am. To the point that if one of you were to call me Kevin, it would not sound or feel right. And it feels jarring and unnatural if someone in my family calls me Michael. Precisely because my relationship with my name is a tangible indicator of my relationships with other people.

The same thing applies to certain biblical figures. More or less. Names in Scripture have great meaning as an indicator of who an individual is and what that person is called to do. God sometimes gives new names to people to indicate a change in who they are, of who they are called to be, or what they are called to do. When God established his covenant with Abram, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude” and Sarai’s name to Sarah, meaning “princess.” After Jacob wrestled with God, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning “he who struggles with God” or “prince of God.” Jesus gave Simon the additional name of Peter, meaning “rock,” indicating his future as the foundation on which the church would be built. And Saul, after his conversion, changed his name to Paul. There are many other examples of lesser known biblical figures having their names changed to reflect a new path in their lives. We see similar examples in the Church. When a cardinal is elected Pope, he takes on a new name. Many monastics take on a new name when they profess their vows. And there is a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church to take on a saint’s name when a person is confirmed. All of these changes in name reflect the fact that some major transformation has occurred in the person of faith. A change in their character or in the path to which they are called by God.

In biblical thought, the name stands for the whole person, his or her character and power of personality. One’s name stands for one’s very being. This even applies to God. The name of God is the very Being of God, all that God has manifested himself to be in his revelation throughout salvation history. The name of God is invoked to bring blessing upon his people. We see this in our Old Testament reading, which is the giving of the Aaronic Blessing:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Num 6.24-26)

What is really behind the threefold use of “Lord” is God’s personal name, YHWH.  This name is considered so sacred that it is the only name devout Jews avoid speaking. For the name YHWH sums up so much revelation of God that, to avoid using it casually or disrespectfully, the people of Israel avoid using it altogether and instead use Adonai (Lord in English). The Aaronic Blessing puts the name of God on God’s own people and promises them a blessing. Therefore, to bless means to confer upon the faithful all that God is and all that God has done and will do for the people.

With all that as background, we turn our attention to another name. The Holy Name of Jesus, which we celebrate today. This is the eighth day after Jesus’ birth. And according to Jewish tradition, according to the covenant God made with Abraham, all males are to be circumcised when they are eight days old, a sign of the continued covenant between God and his people. This also came to be the time for the formal naming of the child. While the focus of the ceremony on the eighth day is circumcision, Luke, in our Gospel reading for today, is more concerned with the naming of Jesus. The giving of the name that was foretold even before his birth. During the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel, the archangel Gabriel says to Mary, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Lk 1.31). And in the Annunciation to Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel, the angel tells Joseph that Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1.21).

The naming of Jesus is significant, as his name means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh saves.” You can’t get much more explicit about who Jesus is and what he is called to do. Recognizing that names carry power, Scripture tells us that acts performed in Jesus’ name themselves become a revelation of God’s presence among the people. The early Christian community proclaimed repentance and forgiveness of sins (Lk 24.47), healed the sick (Acts 3.6-10), and cast out demons (Acts 16.18) in Jesus’ name.

We ourselves are recipients of the benefit of Jesus’ name. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, “God sent his Son,” Jesus, “so that we might receive adoption as children. And because [we] are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal 4.5-7). We are adopted as God’s children in and through the name of Jesus Christ, and are thereby recipients of all the benefits that entails. We receive forgiveness of all our sins. We receive our salvation. As heirs to God’s Kingdom, we receive the promise of new and eternal life in him. Jesus’ name confers upon us and indicates this sacred relationship we have with God and with Jesus.

All of this by virtue of our baptism. When we go into the water of baptism, we die to self and are born anew in Christ. In that rebirth, we are given a new name. We are called Christian. Christ-ian. One who commits to and follows Christ. One who takes on the name of Christ. This gives us tremendous power.

On the power of Jesus’ name, on the power of having access to the sacred name of our God, theologian Frederick Buechner comments, “When I tell someone my name, I have given him a hold over me that he didn’t have before. If he calls it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not. In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses that his name is Yahweh, and God hasn’t had a peaceful moment since” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC).

Of course, I think Buechner was being a little tongue-in-cheek in his statement about God not having had a moment’s peace since revealing his name. As evidenced in conferring the Aaronic Blessing, God wants his name to be given to the people. To guide them, to uplift them, to give them the strength they need to live their lives, particularly their lives of faith. I think God delights in us calling upon his name. For when we do, we recognize who God is for us, we recognize who Jesus is for us, and in so doing glorify his holy name and claim its power on our own behalf. This commemoration of the Holy Name of Jesus is meant to remind us of the salvation Jesus brings to us and to all God’s people. As we invoke his name, we proclaim that he embodies all that God intends for us: blessing now and life eternal in the age to come. And we claim those precious gifts as our own.

No comments: