Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Luke 2:15-21

By: The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff

The Feast of the Holy Name celebrates the naming of Jesus. In Deuteronomic Law, all male children were circumcised 8 days after they were born. The circumcision and naming of a child marked them as an inheritor of Abraham’s covenant with God and also created the child’s identity within a family.  A name is the fundamental building block of our identity. Our names define who we are and how we are known. In the ancient world there was a widely held belief that names had power and to know someone’s name would give you the ability to influence or control them, similar to the second chapter of Genesis when the creatures of the earth parade in front of Adam; as he names them all, he is then given dominion over them. Names have power and significance and none more so than the name of Jesus. 

For many figures throughout the bible an encounter with God would result in a new identity and being re-named. “Abram” is named “Abraham” when God speaks to him about the covenant and his promise for the future. God gives his wife “Sarai” the name “Sarah” and promises to bless her. “Jacob” wrestles with an angel of the Lord and becomes “Israel”. God never leaves us in the same place we  were when we encounter him, and an encounter with God can change the foundation of someone’s identity.   

Yet, in all the naming and renaming that takes place God’s name alone remains a mystery. Throughout the First Testament God’s name is kept unknown.  Various terms are used to describe the God of Israel, but none of them claim to be God’s true name. The tetragrammaton abbreviated as “YHWH” is intentionally kept unpronounceable, and “Adonai” is a term of respect translating to “My Lord”.   At the burning bush Moses asks God’s name and the only name he’s given is “I Am” or “I will be what I will be”, perhaps telling us that God’s identity is “Be-ing” itself.  

The power in the name, Jesus, or Yeshua, “God saves” is that it is the name God gives God’s self. God reveals his identity and is made known to us in the human incarnation of God’s saving action, named Jesus. By giving us his true name God invites us into relationship, and as we draw closer to him we also become transformed. Like those figures in scripture who were renamed after having an encounter with God, we are also given a new identity and a new name.  Through Jesus we discover the name God uses for us. Whoever we are and whatever name or term we use to talk about our God, we are each called by our own name: “Beloved”.

The desire to be seen, to be known and understood, finds its true fulfillment in the One who comes to save us from our loneliness and isolation, our despair and our selfish tendencies, our dependence on all the things that draw us away from true life. This feast day, may you know and celebrate your true identity, eternally Beloved of God. And may you share the joy of that identity with each around you, inviting them, too, into the loving embrace of our true home: held safely in the very Heart of God.

The Rev. TJ Tetzlaff serves as Priest-In-Chart at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Noblesville, Indiana. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife, Chana, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo. In his free time, he enjoys reading, going on hikes, spending time with his family and playing chess (poorly).

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