Feast of the Holy Name

Good morning on this quiet, New Year’s morning. This is definitely one of those extra-credit days in the church! We had a great time here last night – you can see the remnants of that. Once again, Dr. Lewis and the other musicians were fantastic. We are lucky to have you, Matt. 

Today is a little-known feast day that, most years, goes entirely unremarked upon, but this year happens to fall on a Sunday: The Feast of the Holy Name. It’s been around since the late 16th century, starting with the Franciscan order. There’s little agreement among Christians about the date for this day. Roman Catholics observe it in mid-January, old Anglicans in August, and a scattered bunch of us today on January 1, since that was the day that Jesus was circumcised and formally given his name, Jesus, according to today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke.

But this feast was really a local event across Christendom, celebrated for centuries at different times and in different ways, not ever rising to the level of importance where we needed to agree on it. 

The name, Jesus, was a common name in the first century. It means “he who saves” or “God saves,” and is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. Other versions of it in the Bible are Isaiah, and also Hosea, two of the Old Testament prophets. The Gospel of Luke tells us that this name was given to Mary by the Angel Gabriel even before Jesus was conceived. Then at his circumcision, it was formally imparted to him by his parents. 

The naming of our children is such an exciting event. And all of us with kids have different stories. My son, Inigo, was a jumpy, fiery kid inside my womb, and one day it just seemed right to me and Andrew to give him a name we’d always liked: Inigo, from the root “fire” and also, “knowledge.” Ignatius is the Latinized version of it.

By contrast, our daughter was a contented little baby in utero, and so we gave her a family name that means a lot to us and that suited her, too–still does: Naomi, which means pleasant. 

We name our children in that moment of anticipation, when they’re all potential and our hopes for them high and untroubled. I like that Holy Name falls on the first of the year in our church calendar, with all that lies ahead still a blank slate and a touch of hope and optimism in the air. It seems fitting.

Mary and Joseph didn’t give Jesus his name; the angel did. But it’s a generous name, given to many sons in that day for multiple reasons. He who saves. Often it was a family name. It also expresses something about what our children are to us, a kind of salvation, giving us renewed purpose, expanding our worlds, enlarging our hearts to an almost unbearable degree, hopefully also enlarging our hearts for the wider world. Those who in that day gave their sons this name, Jesus, may also have hoped that their child would deliver his people, the Jewish people, from the oppression of the Roman regime. There were, in fact, other men in the first century with the name Jesus who also preached about the downfall of the Temple and the Roman powers that be.

It’s a hopeful name, and an ambitious one. And true to the Angel’s words, this Jesus would live up to it, surely beyond anything his parents could have imagined or expected.

In the background of this feast day, Holy Name, lies the prohibition from the Bible on uttering the name of God. Our confirmation kids just learned this story, from Exodus: Moses encountered God in the form of a burning bush, but having never known this deity, Moses asked him his name, and God replied, basically, I am he who cannot be named: I am what I am. Or, I will be what I will be. To this day, no one knows how to interpret it. It’s essentially God saying, You cannot know my essence and you cannot pin me down with a name. The word that appears in the written form of that story is never uttered. Substitutes are given for it, most commonly in our Bible, in English, the word LORD. 

But think of how, by contrast, the name Jesus has been invoked endlessly, an infinity of times in history. Already in the early church it had become an incantation, uttered in times of trouble or when seeking healing for oneself or another. Entire devotional prayers and traditions have been built up around simply saying, over and over and over again, day and night, the name Jesus. There was also a custom of printing the first three letters of Jesus’ name, IHS, and carrying it around with you as a sort of talisman. You still see these letters carved onto altars, pulpits, clergy vestments. It was once believed that you should utter the name right before your death to ensure salvation. 

We use it, we print it, we say and pray his name indiscriminately, and for all sorts of purposes: healing. Comfort. Worship. In grief and in joy. (Sometimes in anger!) In the larger history of our faith, the intimacy of this is unthinkable. And that’s another reason I like this feast just where it is, here on January 1: not just because it’s the New Year and naming signifies new beginnings and potential; but also because it’s here within the twelve days of Christmas, days we’re reminded that God chose to live among us, to be named and known, on our lips and in our hearts.

So a happy New Year, Merry Christmas, and happy Feast of the Holy Name. Amen.