Category Archives: Christmas


December 24, Christmas Eve

“This will be a sign for you …a child, lying in a manger.”—Luke 2:12 

We know all we know about the first Christmas Eve from a few gospel stories, all written decades after the fact, all different in detail. They have this in common, ‘though—no animals are mentioned at Jesus’ birth. No lowing cattle, no braying donkey, no stamping sheep, no droopy-eyed dromedaries parked outside. 

Which is why, when it comes to Christmas, imagination is more reliable than Holy Writ. Christians know what to do with the bare bones of a good story: add flesh. 

No animals? But there’s a manger, so there must’ve been animals! The evangelists probably just forgot. Surely God wants this corrected. Henceforth, then, let us sing about the donkey in the corner stall, paint loveable lambkins into the scene, arrange cattle in crèches where they belong and, while we’re at it, throw in Godzilla and a cat. 

Thus have animals become gospel. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

I once got a card showing Little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. An ox muzzles at it, stink-eyeing the babe, as if to say, “You’re cute, little boy, but you’re lying on my dinner.” Ugh, I moralized, there it is on a Christmas card—humans monopolizing all the space, making life hard for every animal but us. 

But I also felt glad. Glad the ox was even there. Glad that we humans, so self-centered most of the time, noticed for once that a vital part was missing and rushed to paint, write, and sing it back in. Glad, too, more than I can say, that tonight is born for us the One in whose bright realm no one is ever missing, no creature great or small left out of Love.


Newborn Child, give us imagination to see who’s missing and bring them right back in.

Commemoration of Saint Nicholas, December 6


“He had to be made like his siblings in every way, so that he might become a merciful high priest… For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…”—Hebrews 2:17, 4:15

When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra gave away a fortune and gave himself to the church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for generosity to the poor. After he died on December 6, 354, his fame spread beyond Asia Minor. In Europe, Christian imagination transformed him into jolly old St. Nick. Here, cartoonist Thomas Nast made him Santa Claus.

These days, many Christians are down on Santa and the commercialization of the season he represents. Aiming for a holier Advent, they point back to St. Nicholas, Santa’s prototype. We’d be a lot closer to the right spirit, they say, if we looked to the bishop, not the elf.

If only it were that simple. It turns out that the kind bishop was also a harsh bishop. Once jailed for his orthodox faith, he gave as good as he got, persecuting pagans and repressing Arian heretics. He was an amalgam of utmost kindness and fierce certainty, passions sweet and cruel, a compromised person in a complicated world. Like ours. Like us.

And if we’re hoping to be squeaky clean in this expectant season; if we think there’s a right way to do Advent that will bring us to Christmas with bright shiny faces; if we’re striving to reach a spiritual place in our lives without defects, contradictions, and dead-ends, perhaps we haven’t yet begun to grasp the Mercy we’re waiting for, the One who reached eagerly for the compromised flesh we try to escape, entered the complicated world we try to smooth out, and loved them both to death, even death on a cross.


On St. Nicholas Day, we surrender our compromised hearts, complicated lives, and earnest striving to you, O Mercy without end.


Image: St Nicholas, 16th c. Russian icon



“The One who makes rich is made poor, taking on the poverty of flesh, that I may gain the riches of divinity. The One who is full is made empty, devoid a while of glory, that I may share that glory fully. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me?”—St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-391)

It’s an ancient theological question: Why did God become one of us?

Some Christians believe it was to fix a big problem—to pay the unpayable debt incurred by Adam’s sin. When he grows up, Jesus will bridge with his broken body the unbridgeable chasm our disobedience opened between us and God.

And if that’s what you believe about God’s purpose, you stand in a venerable stream of Christian tradition, and I won’t say you’re wrong.

I will say it’s not the only way to imagine why God took a body. There are other venerable traditions, and one of them says the Savior came to divinize us, to give us God’s own glory.

God emptied out to take humanity in. God stooped down to raise us up. God accepted limits to dissolve the limits that made it seem, tragically, as if God and humans are opposites. The mystery—the wonder—of the Incarnation is that we’re not.

In this way of imagining, what we wait for in Advent is not someone to fix us but someone to reveal us to ourselves. The gift on the horizon is not a grim course correction but a mirror, a gaze, a joyous shock of mutual recognition—there, the eternal resemblance, the beauty, the dignity, the shining, shining love.


O to be the objects of so great an Affection! O this wealth of goodness! O this mystery that surrounds us!


Washing Socks


At a church I used to serve, we distinguished clearly between Advent and Christmas. In Advent we sang Advent hymns. Pretty much only Advent hymns. Which means we didn’t start singing Christmas carols until everyone else was sick of them.

There’s a good liturgical and biblical rationale for delaying Christmas  carol gratification, although if you’re someone who never gets sick of singing carols, there’s not an argument in the world that will sway you.

But maybe this will—it’s just safer to wait.

If you sing carols too long, you might start paying attention to the words. If you do, you’ll have questions. Take those lyrics about “mild mother Mary.” How many mothers do you know who are mild, with screaming infants at the breast?

There are other dangers too, such as the invention of goofy lyrics. Sing carols enough and someone is bound to wreck them for you. Remember that old chestnut, “Good King Windshield Glass”? And surely you know “While shepherds washed their socks…”

While shepherds washed their socks by night, 

all seated round the tub, 

the Angel of the Lord came down

and gave them all a scrub.

We used to drive the nuns crazy with this one:

We three Kings of Orient are

puffing on a rubber cigar.

It was loaded. It exploded.


We two Kings…

And so on. That’s the American version, by the way. In Liverpool they sing about underwear that sells for two pence a pair in Hamilton SquareSo fantastic! No elastic! Not very safe to wear. And not very safe to sing…

Yep, it’s just less risky to restrict carol-singing to the brief Christmas season. Unless, of course, you know that neither Advent nor Christmas is about being safe. Unless, of course, you know risk is what it’s all about—God taking a risk on the world, a risk on us. Leaving divine glory and heavenly peace aside to become one of us. A goofy, crazy, laughable plan if there ever was one.

No matter when you sing them, may the carols of Christmas give you joy, and maybe even a few laughs. Especially if you could really use one.

Prayer Grant us joy in your birth, O newborn Jesus. And not a little goofiness. We could use a laugh. Amen.

Story and Song: Reflection at Lessons and Carols


The custom of holding Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve originated at King’s College in Cambridge in the year the Great War ended. It was a rather fancy way to tell a simple story, high church and glorious. But whether you tell the story in a Gothic cathedral with priests in surplice and cassock, or in a village church with little kids in bathrobes and paper crowns, it’s the same story repeated, wondered at, puzzled over, relished, and entered into for 2,000 years. And whether it’s sung with sophistication by boy choristers in ruffles accompanied by a masterful organ, or with a willing simplicity by a few octogenarians at a church piano, it’s the same song, sung with astonishing trust in its ancient oddness and candid faith in its startling relevance.

It’s such a good story. And so we tell it and we sing it year after year until its truth dawns on us, its power changes us, its vision redirects us, and all its promises come true. No matter who you are or where you find yourself on life’s journey, the story and the song are for you.

If you’re a little restless in spirit, if every now and then you’re blindsided by a longing you can’t quite name, if you’ve ever felt far away from yourself, as if you’re missing some meaning you were made for, if you wish you could clear away what’s standing between you and the joy you know is in you—if that’s how it is with you, restless and distant from your own heart, the story and the song are yours. The story, about people in a kind of exile, yearning for a light, for someone to bring them home. The song, your own heart’s cry for a breakthrough, for joy at last—O Come, O come! Rejoice, rejoice! If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart. [O Come, O Come, Emmanuel]

If you’re exhausted from the effort to climb to the top, if your heart’s a little soured from doing the things it takes to get there and to stay there, if you’re asking yourself what it’s costing you, whether you might be happier some other way—if that’s how it is with you, tired of climbing, wondering if down might be better than up, the story’s yours, and so is the song. The story, about a God who comes down, lays glory aside, abandons privilege to become small, and all for love. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart. [Born among Us in the Night]

If you’re feeling stymied as you survey an unjust world, if you’re angry and depressed about how seldom things change, if you’re tempted to throw in the towel—if that’s how it is with you, edging towards despair, the story’s for you, and the song. The story about the fear engulfing a proud tyrant’s city, while in a village just nine miles away—lightyears away—heavenly peace holds sway as an infant sleeps at his mother’s breast. The song, a vision, the powerful down from thrones, the poor up from the dust, justice no longer denied. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart. [My Heart Sings out with Joyful Praise]

If you’ve made a mess of something, maybe your life, if there are unkempt places in your heart you’d rather never come to light, if you know what you deserve and fear an accounting, if you think you’re not good enough for God to love you—if that’s how it is with you, hiding something, ashamed, the story is for you tonight, and the song. The story of a truce between earth and heaven, of pardon and peace and the erasure of shame, a story in which the feared judge turns out to be someone so like us, helpless and vulnerable, knowing our weakness well, from the inside out–a Child who pleads for us from a cradle. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart. [Hark, the Herald Angels Sing]

If you’re sad tonight, if you carry a heart pierced with the fresh pain of recent loss, or an old loss still sharp, if you’re acting brave but really want to curl up and cry—if this is how it is with you, grieving, bereft, the story’s for you, and the song. The story about a hard journey, following a star on sheer faith, keeping company with others in the long cold night as life and love are somehow born again. The song is sure: the Child feels for us, for all our sadness, and you are not alone. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart. [Once in Royal David’s City]

And if you’re joyous, at peace and full of hope, if you’re amazed by all the love you’ve received and all the love you’ve given in your life, if even your sacrifices are wellsprings of joy, if your thanks cannot be counted—if this is how it is with you, awestruck and grateful, the story is for you tonight, and the song. The story about love in the beginning, about love in the end, about light in shadows that shadows cannot overcome, about the unaccountable graciousness that makes you the apple of God’s eye. The song is glory in the highest, love’s come down to earth for us, and earth repeats the joy. If this is the story you need to hear, listen. If this is the song you need to sing, sing it tonight with all your heart. [Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come]

Dear friends in Christ, the church doesn’t offer certainty or safety. Faith won’t fix your problems or pay your debts. We have no armies, no power to force right where there is wrong. No doctrine or rule in our tradition can change a heart or mend it. We have nothing efficient to offer the world. But we have a story. We have a song. The story of fierce love, the song of tenacious hope, the surprise of God in flesh appearing. The Christmas story. And we tell it tonight to you, in this good company. In good company, we sing it with you tonight. With all who need to hear it, with all who need to sing it, we share it with love.  No matter who you are, no matter where you find yourself on life’s journey, it’s yours. A gift to you from God. May it save your life, heal your heart, soothe your pain, shield your gladness, awaken your desire, strengthen your hope, and give you joy that never ends. [On This Day Earth Shall Ring]

Treasure: Christmas Day


“But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” – Luke 2:19

 The Savior is born!

A thousand angels broadcast the news. They fill the sky and sing. Shepherds praise the Lord. They scurry around, they come and go and tell. Christmas dawns bustling and loud. Everyone has something to say, noisy and glad.

Mary doesn’t say a thing. But the door of her heart stands dangerously open. It all comes in—gladness, hope, consequences. Inwardly, she turns the prism of each sight and sound, each extraordinary thing, every possible meaning. With each turning, new light, greater affection.

She is the still point in the resounding amazement.

Oh, the things she knows…

She is the field in which God buried a treasure. And some day, when we’re paying attention, we will stumble upon it. Some day our hearts will leap at its worth. Some day we will sell all we have for it.

Maybe today.


On Christmas Day, Saving God, move us to loud rejoicing; but grant us also the stillness of Mary, her open door, the art of treasuring, and a glimpse of the things she knows. In the name of her newborn Child, we pray. Amen.

So Weird: Meditation for 4th Advent/Christmas Sunday


Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:8-18

In our house, when I was growing up, the baby Jesus didn’t appear in the manger until after we got back from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We were strict constructionists—no carols in Advent, and no baby in the cradle ‘till the night he was born.

But that was just about the only biblically correct thing about our crèche. Remember the part in the Bible where it says that a large fuzzy spider crawled along Joseph’s shoulder? No? Well, there was a large fuzzy spider in our manger scene anyway. And an angel in a tutu wearing big clown sneakers straddling the roofline of the barn. And a little model Ferrari parked next to the camels. And a purple wind-up Godzilla that spit electric sparks on the Virgin Mary’s head.

When you have little kids in the house and you’ve put the crèche on a low table, a purple Godzilla’s not the weirdest thing that’s likely to show up to adore the Child.

But then, all the characters in the Christmas story have a touch of weird about them. Take the angel Gabriel. He’s scary. Every time he appears in the Bible, he says, ‘Don’t be afraid!’ You don’t have to say “Don’t be afraid!” if nobody’s scared. Gabriel has to say it all the time. That’s because he scares people. You’d be scared too if a bright pulsating creature with ginormous wings dropped in on you out of the blue. Even if he were to appear as an ordinary person, which angels sometimes do, he’d still be a strange guy you don’t know—in your house.

Then there’s Mary. After Gabriel calms her down (‘Don’t be afraid, Mary!’), he tells her that God has decided she should have a miraculously conceived baby who will be the son of God and a king with an endless reign… and would that be okay with her? In one of the greatest understatements of the Bible, Mary is said to have been ‘perplexed’ by this. Perplexed? That’s what you are when you’re looking at an unusually high electric bill, not when you’re being informed of a virginal conception. Mary also ‘ponders.’ We’re told she meditates on everything that’s happening. While it’s happening. Giving birth in a livestock shed in the dead of winter, she’s pondering. Smelly animals nose around her newborn, she’s pondering. Angels play trumpets overhead, shepherds with garlic breath crowd her personal space, and she ‘ponders all these things in her heart.’ Mary ponders. You and I would be hysterical.

And Joseph. Silent Joseph. He says nothing at all from his first appearance in the biblical record until he disappears altogether, sometime after Jesus turns twelve. Not a syllable. He probably didn’t have time to talk. Angels were always interrupting his sleep. He kept having to load up the donkey at a moment’s notice. Off to Bethlehem. Off to Egypt. Back again. Without a GPS. Maybe he was just too worn out to say anything.

And the shepherds. You want them in your Christmas carols and on your greeting cards, but not in your house. They tramp in all that … manure. They tell off-color jokes. And they are known to have sticky fingers. Count the silver when they leave. You’ll be missing a few forks and the soup spoon.

No, Godzilla isn’t the oddest character in the crèche. They’re all a touch strange. But it’s probably a good thing for us that they are.

If Gabriel had been a pudgy-cheeked cherub who never made anybody nervous, we might not have known that it’s good for us to be scared by the Holy every now and then. To tremble before an awesome God. We sing about being scared— ‘Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.’ ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand.’ But when was the last time you actually shook in God’s presence, or hid your face before God’s holiness, or begged God to go away and leave you alone, or stood mute before God’s power in the world, in someone else’s life, or in your own? The last time the world suddenly became a lot larger than you thought? Deeper and more mysterious than anybody thought? When your certainties vanished? When you fell to your knees?

And if Mary hadn’t done so much pondering, we might not have realized just how much there is to ponder in the way our lives unfold. How much mystery is tucked into life’s smallest details. How available God is to us in the facts on the ground, in the stuff of being human. If Mary doesn’t show us how to ponder everything that’s in a heart, we might never hold some seemingly insignificant experience up to the light, turn it ‘round and ‘round like a prism, and discover there, in every facet of mess and glory, the presence and activity of the living God.

And if Joseph hadn’t been so silent, so retiring, we might not have seen how silly it is always to want to have something clever or wise to say, to interject something about everything, to be the center of attention in every conversation. If he isn’t silent, we might not discover how liberating it is to have no need to comment, no compulsion to be heard, no urge to intrude upon a drama and steal a scene. We might miss a chance to notice how seldom we hold back and make room for someone else to be seen and heard, or how much we need to have someone make that space of dignity for us. If Joseph had been a chatterbox, his son Jesus might not have developed that beautiful capacity of his just to let things be. Jesus might not have disappeared to hilltops at night to be still and listen to God and catch the sounds of human suffering and hope rising from below. Maybe it was the example of Joseph’s silence that kept Jesus from being provoked when, bloody and accused, he stood before Pilate and the crowd. Maybe Joseph’s relinquishment of the need to be a Somebody enabled his Child to stand before the powers of the world and, in his infinite self-possession, vanquish them, without uttering a single self-defensive word.

And if it weren’t for the stinky, shifty shepherds, some people might think they have to spiff up to go to the manger and meet God. They might never go at all if they think it requires clean hands, trendy clothes, a spotless conscience. They might miss the chance to know the God who welcomes everybody who comes, even and especially the odd and undesirable. Welcomes everybody and everything who comes for whatever reason, even if it’s to try to steal the silver. Without shepherds who steal the silver we might never come to love this God who doesn’t seem to mind being taken advantage of. Who would hand over the whole treasure to us in a heartbeat. Who does hand it over to us in the life of a shivering Child. Who never demands a thing in return except that we hand ourselves over to each other in mercy, justice, and love.

In my family’s crèche there was a spider crawling on Joseph, a Ferrari parked next to the camels, an angel in sneakers perched on the roof, and a plastic Godzilla, purple and proud, spitting sparks on Mary’s head. It was a weird scene. But then, so is my life. And so is yours. And so is the world’s.

And, the Story goes, for some unfathomable reason—call it love—God can’t resist joining us in our weirdness. And so, the Story goes, the Word became flesh and lived among us. And because he became all that we are, weird and wonderful, nothing that we are is out of bounds at his cradle. Nothing and no one. Not you, not me, not purple plastic Godzilla.

Odd as that is. Strange as it seems.

In Season and Out


By the time you read this, Advent will be a memory—although we never really leave Advent, do we? We are always longing for love to materialize, always waiting for promises to come true, always scanning the signs of the times, always living under the judgment of a God who prefers mercy to sacrifice, always creating highways in the human wilderness to announce the good news about God’s unshakeable commitment to the earth and all who dwell upon it. Advent may be over, but Advent never leaves us. Desire for joy and justice is the permanent subtext of our lives.

Christmas will have come and gone too—although we never really leave Christmas, do we? We are always adoring on bended knee at cradles occupied by unfathomable babies, always surrounded by glory-singing angels, always offering ourselves and all we have in praise, always finding God most tenacious and tender among the suffering, the homeless and the poor, always subverting the violent power of kings with humility, with the insistence of stars, with the simple truth. Christmas may be over, but Christmas never leaves us. Human life is forever divinized. God forever wears a human face.

By the time you read this, it will be (almost) Epiphany—the season when eyes of faith flood with the most wonderful light, and the beauty of the One who lives and breathes in Jesus’ ministry is irresistible. All season long, the veil lifts and God is known in the wonders Jesus does, the words he speaks, and the kinds of people he calls to his side to share his company and his daily work.

You too, come and see, Jesus says. Come, see for yourselves. And if we go, and if we see, and if by his grace we stay, we will never leave Epiphany, nor Epiphany us.

Come and see, he says. And if we do, we will become like him, all light from light.

According to Matthew


–Joseph Sleeping, Gentile da Fabriano

According to Matthew, angels do not sleep: in the small hours they intervene, scattering the sleep of others.

They harry exhausted fathers and tip off shrewd men who hail from far away.

According to Matthew, the world is a place where good people’s dreams bulge with warnings, and hope is barely one hard breathing step ahead of tyrants bent on harm.

According to Matthew, there is an inexhaustible supply  of tyrants.

Angels have to work overtime; even then children die.

Only one escapes this time.

He will grow to be the sort of man who accepts angelic ministrations in wilderness and garden, but no more intervention.

Even forewarned, he will not flee; not even put up a fight.

Naming Jesus

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.