Luke 2:15-21 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.
Image: Unknown , Ottonian, Regensburg, c. 1030 – 1040
It used to be that when I’d find out that a couple was expecting or preparing to adopt an infant, I’d inquire right away about whether they’d decided on a name. But experience has taught me that it’s a very bad question to ask, especially if you also feel it’s your duty to offer a few suggestions! Parents are generally pretty particular and protective about choosing names. It is often a cause of friction between them, and if the relatives are butting in too, everybody is on edge. It’s not for nothing that many of our given names have little family stories attached to them.
When I was leading small discussion groups, I’d sometimes break the ice with a question about the participants’ names. Why were you named Elizabeth or Paul or Malcolm or Linda? Were you named for a hero or saint, a grandparent, a movie star? Was ‘Tiffany’ or ‘Grant’ a hot name the year you were born? Is your name brand new, invented out of wonderful sounds, like Keeshawn or Tawanda or Juwan? Or is it traditional, biblical, like Ruth or Rachael or Adam?
I, for example, was supposed to be named Janice, after my mother’s mother, Janetta. But the labor was long and my head and shoulders were big, and the pain was great, and my mother — who up till that moment had not been particularly devoted to the Mother of Jesus — was heard to scream, loud enough for everyone in heaven to hear: “Get me out of this and I’ll name her Mary!”
Names matter to us. We try to remember names and get them right. We’re embarrassed when we forget somebody’s name. It bothers us when somebody gets ours wrong, adds an ‘e’ on Ann if there isn’t one, or forgets to add one if there is. We don’t treat our names lightly.
Names have a way of saying: Attention! Human being here. To deny people their personhood, we take their names away. When people are sent to prison, they gets a number; when Jews were sent to camps, they became numbers; when Africans were enslaved, their African names were erased and they were given different ones, left nameless, or called ‘Tom’ or ‘boy.’ To sing, then, as they did, “Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name…” was a defiant assertion of human dignity. Jesus knew their names.
If our names don’t feel right, we change them. You know, one minute he was ‘Prince,’ and the next he was ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,’ and then he was a graphic logo. We snicker, but we also understand. In some irreplaceable way, our names do more than identify us: they create us. And the simple utterance of a given name often generates the most intimate intimacies. Recall the scene in the Gospel of John when one of the women who went to anoint the entombed Jesus met a man she thought was the caretaker. She demanded to know where Jesus’ body was. He said, ‘Mary.” And she knew him.
Names elicit real presences. If you doubt the power of a name to evoke a person, go to the Viet Nam Memorial. Watch people trace with their fingers the names cut into the wall as if they were making out the features of a well-loved face in a dark room.
Names, the scriptures tell us, are also important to God. Practically any place you open the Bible, you’ll find God preoccupied with names, naming people, changing their names, explaining their names. This God won’t assign you a number. In fact, God is said to know us before we are even conceived, and that means by name. God, we are told, has inscribed all our names on the palm of the divine hand. In scripture, being called by name is a rich gift—it carries with it implications of belonging and safety and redemption and covenant love and mission and accountability.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that God had a name picked out for Mary and Joseph’s child. When he announced the birth, Gabriel also announced the name, and thus the couple was spared all the intra-family hazards of having to choose one. They never fought over which grandfather to honor, or whether to name him Joseph, Jr., or whether to saddle him with a hip name or an old fashioned one. And when eight days had passed, and the time came for him to be circumcised, they gave him, Luke’s gospel says, the name commanded by the angel before he was conceived in the womb– Jesus, that is, ‘God saves.
Naming their child was an act of obedience, one of a series of obedient responses that marked the odd experience of these parents. This obedience is the only reason Luke mentions the naming ceremony in his gospel (it only merits half a line, after all): he wants to show that neither this child nor the child’s parents are independent agents. They operate faithfully in response to the divine plan for reconciliation. Mary and Joseph name the child Jesus because even though it’s plain that neither of them understands fully what is happening, they believe God has spoken, and that’s enough for them. From the beginning, then, the child whose name means ‘God saves’ is a son of obedience as well as a son of God.
And that never changes. This association of salvation and obedience permeates Jesus’ life. It is a major concern of the evangelists too. You can invoke Jesus’ name again and again, one says, but unless you are also obediently carrying out God’s will, it will do you no good. You can be his mother, the first to call him by name, says another, but unless you are hearing and obeying God’s word of mercy, blood connections and old family stories won’t do you any good either. Even the demons know Jesus’ name, we read, and they easily invoke it; but they are still demons.
Each of us has a different name. But we have a name in common too. We who follow Jesus bear his name together. It is the name God likes to call us, even if it is also the one we find hardest to call ourselves, since we are usually better at knowing ourselves deficient and a cause of God’s disappointment than we are at knowing ourselves holy and a source of God’s delight. And yet by grace the name of Jesus is indeed our best and truest name, the name that delivers us into God’s intimacy. If we hush, hush, we will always hear the Spirit calling it, reminding us of the dignity we possess even when we ignore or squander it. Bearing this name of Jesus self-consciously, purposefully, responsively, will make us children of obedience like he was, so that we will not be children of God in name only.
The name of Jesus belongs first to the baptized, but it is not an exclusive name; it also fits every person who obediently seeks the mystery of God and the community of justice and wholeness that is the will of God. Anyone who has ever participated in depth in inter-faith dialogue or in cross-cultural movements for liberation knows well how much the name of Jesus is revered and ‘adopted’ by people whose religious lives unfold in other traditions, sometimes more so than within the Christian family itself.
The name of Jesus is a precious name. Many a soul has gone trustingly to an awful martyrdom or to a kinder, everyday death with this name on its lips. Many a struggling heart has found that name sweet in times of illness and strong in times of fear. Many courageous, persevering men and women have invoked its righteous beauty in the face of injustice and oppression. We pray privately and communally in that name, assured by scripture that God responds as faithfully to it as Jesus did to God. We sing stirring hymns in church about the glorious name of Jesus, and about how every knee must bend to it.
But we are generally timid about naming Jesus explicitly outside the small circle of our faith communities, and sometimes even inside them. Some of us hesitate to name him to others (and to each other) because we think we don’t believe enough, or believe correctly, or believe at all. Some think it is hypocritical to speak of him if one’s actions do not match in every particular one’s rhetoric. Some of us fear ‘imposing’ his name on others, as if merely speaking of Jesus were coercive or imperialistic. Or we worry that if we invite people to glimpse this cornerstone of our hope, to grasp the reason for our commitment to the world, they will hear in our naming of Jesus only the narrow-mindedness of the ultra-conservative right or the fanaticism of the fundamentalist.
Of course, we can’t help but be acutely aware that in the name of Jesus every imaginable human horror has been and is still being devised and perpetrated. We know all too well what happens when naming Jesus is divorced from obedience to the God whose ways are not our ways. But the solution is not to keep still about him and about the way we know and experience him. If we are silent about Jesus, withholding from the world the reasons for the way we think and live, we concede the field to the demons who happily speak his name in the world, but only in order to lie about him.
In the silence deepened by our reluctance, God only knows what those demons might say—that Jesus prefers white, well-to-do people? That he stands against the violence of the Palestinians, but not that of the Israelis, or vice-versa? That he is satisfied when the state punishes killing with more killing? That he shows his wrath at Western homosexuality by striking millions of heterosexual Africans with AIDS? That he thinks the answer to gun violence is more guns? If we fail to name him as we have come to know him, at the sound of his name named by such demonic voices, knees will bend all right, but it will surely be in loathing, or in ridicule, or in dread.
But what if we were in the world naming him differently? What if we were less timid and more aware of the difference naming him as we know him could make? What if we encouraged each other to name him, telling stories of how we got this name, telling the world why we think it is a lovely one, why he is ‘God saves,’ and not ‘God condemns,’ why he is worthy of our allegiance. Maybe the more we name him, the more his obedience will live in us, the more his life will be reproduced in us, and the more his compassion will go out from us to the world God loved.