The Holy Name: A God of Surprises
By: Chris Clow
It might not seem like it, but I promise I’m going to tie this one back into the gospel. You’ll just have to bear with me for a bit.
One of my favorite prophets is Jeremiah. I suppose it’s because – like a lot of my favorite religious and spiritual people – he’s honest. Sometimes, brutally honest.
“You seduced me, LORD, and I let myself be seduced;
you were too strong for me, and you prevailed.
All day long I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I must cry out,
violence and outrage I proclaim;
The word of the LORD has brought me
reproach and derision all day long.” (Jer 20:7-8)
Now that’s a prophet I can relate to. Not just moody or temperamental – no, Jeremiah is able to be honest about his struggles. But don’t be deceived; Jeremiah is also a powerful prophet, and he gives us some of the most beautiful imagery in the Bible.
“The word of the Lord came to me:
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” (Jer 1:4-5)
It paints a beautiful picture – that God, the great infinite, what Rudolph Otto referred to as the wholly other, knew Jeremiah (and, hopefully, us) before we even came into existence. To expand it out further, to think that our occurring here is no random cosmic accident, but in some way, shape, or form, intentional. We are part of the plan.
It’s something that I have been reflecting on more and more ever since our child was born back in September (and yes, I know that a lot of these Christmas reflections have turned into parenthood ones – look, we’re celebrating the story of a child’s birth here, you draw from your own experiences, etc). When my wife was pregnant, we made a big point of not wanting to find out the gender. “There are so few surprises left in the world,” she told me. “It would be nice to still have this one.” And so, every time someone would ask us what we were having, we’d say “We don’t know,” and they’d always smile again (or very rarely give us a look of confusion). I know that others would want to know, but we were happy not knowing.
But we were confident it was a girl. We didn’t tell people this, of course, but we knew it. My wife started having a couple of dreams towards the end of her pregnancy of her. I had always pictured having a daughter first. Towards the end of the pregnancy, we were using her name already, and starting to envision the life we would have with her. And so, even before she was born, we were already anticipating her.
“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”
I still don’t know if we’re ever going to tell our son Xavier that we were so sure he was a girl.
Yeah, we were totally wrong. And it’s funny how sure we were. We were using the girl’s name, for crying out loud (which I won’t use here in case Xavier ever gets a sister someday). We thought we totally had this one figured out. It would be a surprise to everyone else, but not us – we knew who this child was going to be. We had figured out the plan.
As the saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh…
When it comes to God, I’ve always tried to expect the unexpected. I would like to think that is what everyone in our gospel story was doing as well (see, I told you I’d get there). We read about the shepherds who go to see the child and his parents. It’s important to remember what a weird welcoming party this would have been. When my wife was in labor, in the very distant back of my head was the thought of how to introduce our new child to our parents, who were very excitedly and expectantly awaiting the good news.
The shepherds were not setting out that night to go find Jesus. They were not waiting in anticipation for Mary to give birth. They were just watching their flocks, probably hoping for a quiet, simple night, because quiet meant safe – no wolves, no thieves, no threats. The sudden announcement of that Good News was a frightening thing to them, at first. It was not what they were expecting. Mary and Joseph, I’m sure, were not expecting Mary to have to deliver in an animal trough, much less that they would be visited by a bunch of random shepherds in the middle of the night. They would have liked to stay in the inn, or to have been in their home – this was not their plan.
What a strange story. And yet, what joyful news this is. The shepherds tell everyone about what they had seen. Mary, Jesus’ mother, who certainly is weary from the birth and the stress, not to mention the unexpected visitors, instead hangs onto these moments. She sees in the midst of the stress and the dashing of plans once held, the surprise of God.
The naming of Jesus is given one sentence in Luke’s gospel. It is the most unsurprising part – Jesus is circumcised at 8 days and given his name, the custom of the time. But we know that this name will be associated with something extraordinary. We know what Mary took on faith, and what his disciples and friends would have to come to learn – that this Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
We also know that, no matter how cute the nativity scenes might paint it in our churches, there is something off here. Jesus, the King of kings, is born into poverty, lying in an animal’s feeding trough. Jesus, the one who will save all people, will be forced with his parents to flee to Egypt as a refugee. Jesus, the Son of God, who will in time spend his days healing the sick and lame, restoring the downtrodden to community, and even raising the dead, will become a criminal, sentenced to death by the state. In the midst of God’s grace-filled surprise, we still see evidence of the brokenness we know all too well. And yet, we finally know that the name of Jesus is not just tied into all the fear and violence he endured, but also the grace, glory, and salvation he means for us.
To think – all of that mystery and majesty, sorrow and joy is contained within a name. The name may be simple, but the person behind the name carries such hope and promise and power. Mary knew what the angel had told her when they named their child Jesus, but she couldn’t really have predicted exactly how his life would have gone. Jeremiah didn’t know the extent of what being a prophet for the Lord would lead him into (though he probably had an idea). When my wife and I brought little Xavier home, we had no idea how the next few weeks would go, whether we would ever sleep again. We have no idea what his life will hold, what he will love and think and do, what his name will mean to other people.
There is an awful lot of hopes, dreams, and wishes placed on his little name right now.
But, even though we were not expecting Xavier, he is still the child that we hoped for. He is still the one we talked to in the womb, the one whose ultrasound we watched, the one we tried to plan for. He is the one we left for the hospital at 4am for, the one whose cries we are now attentive to, and the one whose smiles seem to make the rest all worth it. There is so much still that we don’t know, so many surprises left to discover. We do not yet know what his name will mean, but we look forward to discovering God’s surprises to come. Mary did not yet know just what the name of Jesus would mean, but she, and we all, would come to know just what God’s latest surprise would have in store.
Chris Clow is a new parent, campus minister, and liturgical musician at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. He and his wife Emily mostly now spend their time tending to their young infant Xavier, but he also still enjoys working with the students and playing music, finding time for games of all sorts where he can, and converting his son to St. Louis Cardinals fandom in time for Spring Training.