Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Luke 2:15-21

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[1] 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.

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Dr. Emily Kahm

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.

 

 

 

[1] 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.

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Luke 2:15-21

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

“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” (Luke 2:21 NRSV).

“What’s your name?”

You can hear this question in an astonishingly wide range of emotional tones: curiously friendly. Angry and demanding. Sympathetic and caring. When in the presence of a stranger, it often feels natural or even necessary to learn someone’s name. Names are important to humans: they are, quite literally, our identities. Since language has existed, what a person is called has been crucially important both to the individual and to the community.

Humanity highly values names, and the Abrahamic religions, including Christianity, are no exception. In the book of Genesis, God names things as God creates them — including the first human: “Adam,” who is created out of adamah, the earth. After God creates and names the human, God has Adam name all of the animals. In Exodus, before Moses can introduce the Hebrew people to their God, he has to learn God’s name: “YHWH” — “I am what I am, and I will be what I will be.”

Throughout Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, names are changed to reflect new identities and purposes. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel, the one who struggles with God. In the New Testament, Saul becomes Paul and Simon becomes Peter, the Rock upon which the Church is built. From creation, names have been given the highest importance. They are more than just words. They often convey a person’s place and purpose in the world.

In a faith that so highly values names, the Holy Name of Jesus is the “name above all names” — a phrase from Philippians 2 which is often quoted in Christian songs of varying quality. If indeed our faith so highly values names, Jesus should be given the most powerful, dominant, beautiful name. Then there’s the rest of Philippians 2: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11 NRSV) — a passage that some use as a way of asserting the superiority of Christianity over other faiths. The irony of doing this, however, is that it is in the midst of a passage about humility (cf. Philippians 2:1-8).

When I was a child growing up in the rural South, the name of Jesus was often used almost like an incantation. Jesus had the mightiest name, the most powerful name, the strongest name. Given this human tendency to emphasize power, Jesus should have been born and named as a prince in a royal ceremony. If our faith is meant to be the dominant, powerful one, our God should have been a high-born, noble-born child.

But we find Jesus today in the Gospel passage born in a stable, with no one but his parents and some low-born shepherds to celebrate and spread news of his birth. He’s born poor to young parents, named on the eighth day like every other Jewish boy, and becomes a refugee in Egypt at a young age. But we are also told that he is named by an angel before he is conceived. We are also told that angels announce his birth to the shepherds. This ordinary poor boy is also holy — our God has become flesh and lived among us, not as a king, but as a carpenter’s son.

From those beginnings, Jesus, whose holy name simply means “to save,” lives as God-made-flesh who is not so much interested in dominance as in making the ordinary holy. The ordinary life of a thirty-year-old man born in an occupied land is also the holy life of the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Ordinary people become holy pillars of a new faith: Peter, the fisherman; Mary, the girl engaged to the carpenter; Matthew, the tax collector; Mary, the woman who went to put spices on the body of the executed teacher. Sinners become saints.

Ordinary bread and wine become the holy body and blood of God.

And in baptism, ordinary water becomes holy and washes ordinary people clean and welcomes them into the family of God — in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Names are important to us and to our faith: they help us to define ourselves, each other, and our world.

The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy.

It is not a magic word, and it is not an incantation. It is not meant to denote dominance. In the holy name of the ordinary poor boy who was God-made-flesh, our own names, our own bodies, are made holy.

The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy.

We, ordinary people, ordinary flesh, are made holy by the God born in a stable in an occupied land. The name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy. Therefore, as we begin another ordinary year in the Holy Name of Jesus, let us pray that God would make our ordinary year holy: may we seek and find God this year in the ordinary, for God has made the ordinary sacred. May we find God in the poor children born in the occupied lands. May we find God in the marginalized and oppressed of our own nation. May we find God in our ordinary neighbors, for the name of Jesus makes the ordinary holy. Amen.

 

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-year-old Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, Massachusetts, part of the New England Synod of the ELCA. She moved to New England from Atlanta, Georgia, and is known for her frequent use of the word “y’all.” Anna graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2011 and has since served in a variety of settings, urban and rural, in hospital chaplaincy and in the parish. In her spare time, she enjoys climbing mountains and being outdoors, as well as exploring the noisy intersections of faith, politics, pop culture, and psychology.