Holy Name: What’s in a Name?
By: Dr. Emily Kahm
My spouse and I actively debated for weeks what we were going to name our new dog. The name he had been given in foster care, “Harley,” didn’t seem to suit him at all. Nor could we figure out why someone would call this brown hound “Winston,” which was the name given to him by the owner who surrendered him to a shelter. We had only met him once before adopting him, but we knew that those names absolutely didn’t fit. This dog was gentle, bouncy, silly, and anxious (and proved to be even more of all those things once we actually started living with him.) He needed a silly, bouncy name. My spouse and I both being theologians, we were hoping for something a little Christian-geeky too.
Initially, I advocated for “Swarley,” a ridiculous fake name taken from a bit joke in a sitcom we liked to watch. I figured it’d be easier to teach him to respond to a name that sounded like “Harley.” My spouse got the joke, but didn’t like that it wasn’t a real name and that we’d have to repeat it two or three times anytime somebody asked what our dog was called. He liked what I call “people” names, old-fashioned grumpy-man names like Charlie and Carlton. I’ve always preferred naming animals more expressively. Just ask our rabbits, Exodus and Calliope.
In the end, in a graced moment, Chris pointed to a stuffed prairie dog in our house (a souvenir from a zoo trip) and asked, “What did we decide to call this one?” I knew even before I answered him that the name was a winner. And so, when his fosterer dropped him off at our house, we welcomed him as Bosco and Bosco he has remained.
Names take on an enormous symbolic significance in our lives, even when we don’t quite mean for them to. In today’s reading, the naming ceremony almost seems tacked on—an afterthought. But it is actually the focus of the feast day—the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, if one wants to be liturgically proper. And once you think about it, it makes sense that we’d celebrate the naming of our savior. Naming can make things feel more real. Perhaps it’s seeing your new job title in print for the first time that brings home the realization that things have changed at work; maybe we give titles to the novels and music that we plan to one day write. Having a way to refer to someone or something gives it an identity of its own.
For me, the significance of the naming ties back into Mary’s journey, as told by Luke. She knew this child’s name before she birthed him; she knew it before she even conceived him. How many couples choose their children’s names prior to meeting them face to face? Quite a few among my friends, at least. For those of us approaching or in the early stages of family-making, the topic of names is exciting and sometimes contentious—you hear rules about whether you should reveal a baby’s name before they’re born, or how to “claim” a family name for one’s own baby, or whether to ask someone before passing on their name to a new generation. I myself have always disliked the idea of giving a name to a child before you meet them, but my spouse and I still already have names picked out for our own hypothetical children. It’s a natural impulse, to want to give our new creations something we can call them by. It helps us imagine them, imagine our lives being different with an “other” there.
Though the naming ceremony is the reason for the feast, I’m most intrigued by the verse that says Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Even as the verse grabbed me, it took me several reads to remember why—this verse is quoted in one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Ender’s Shadow, as a nun takes in an undernourished, undersized, but profoundly intelligent orphan and begins to raise him as her own, knowing that he won’t stay hers for very long. Her knowledge of their limited time together means that she treasures all his strange quirks and unexpected habits all the more. I doubt that Mary knew the whole of what was in store for her son. Indeed, I think it would have been cruel for God to give her foreknowledge of either the best or worst of what he would experience. But I think she probably knew well enough that her baby wouldn’t be only hers for very long. In learning his name, she came to know him before he was a living, human reality inside herself; in the naming ceremony, she took the being who had been her own secret and presented him to the world, perhaps with pride, perhaps with profound fear.
Of course, the naming is just the start; the introduction. We name, and then we learn what it is to love that name. And in a new year, we have another chance to meet Jesus again, to use the name anew, and to connect again with the person the name describes.
Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is a Teaching Fellow in Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Her research revolves around sexuality education in Christian contexts and the formative influence of video games and gaming. She lives in Davenport, Iowa, with her spouse Chris, their dog Bosco, and their two rabbits, Calliope and Exodus.
 The name also fulfills Christian nerd requirements as we can claim St. Don or Dom Bosco, a priest who dedicated his life to working with street children, as the patron saint of our dog.