Even though St. Paul found himself penning another letter behind the dank walls of a jail cell, he must have been humming when writing, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…every tongue confess…” Within Chapter 2 of his optimistic letter to the Philippians, Paul stops his prose and begins quoting poetry. It’s a song of praise, a whirring hymn, an ode to Jesus Christ our Lord. Like any meaningful melody, music petitions a response. Aaron, acting as priest, blesses the Israelites with poetry. God, in turn, blesses God’s people (Num 6:22-27). Choirs of angels teach lowly shepherds a song of adoration, sending them on their way to Bethlehem where they would welcome Christ the King. While returning to their work they found themselves whistling the refrain just learned, hearts expanded (Lk 2:15-21). Not missing a beat, the Church’s lectionary gifts us with Psalm 8, a righteous hymn revealing the divine majesty of God’s creation. This time the response comes “out of the mouths of infants and children” in the form of cheers and acclamation (Ps 8:2).
By now, the Christmas music has ceased. While no longer played in department stores, on radios, or family road trips, within the walls of churches, parishes, and cathedrals it is still unabashedly Christmas. The Church finds herself on its eighth day singing carols through Sunday—the twelfth and last day of this short feast. Unbeknownst to most, the “New Year” was the first Sunday of Advent (this past year, falling on December 1st) so on today’s Feast of the Holy Name, the Church continues to celebrate. Today, the Christ child has been “given [a name] by the angel before being conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21). Enduring to still sing carols is counter-cultural, offsetting what transpires outside the walls of the church; and yet, like St. Paul we must pause in the middle of prose and quote poetry. Today, the culture is quoting “Auld Lang Syne,” an 18th century poem written by Robert Burns. The opening lines are:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
It’s a poem asking the rhetorical question, “Should we remember the old times?” When asked in the context of New Year’s Day it serves as a reminder not only to remember the old, but to anticipate the coming year with new learnings and recollections, bearing in mind the experience of the past when discernment may be needed in the future. When asking this question in the context of Christianity, the Christian will ultimately point to Christ as its answer. For it is Christ who resolves Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, new and old. In his very body and being the living and the dead are made alive as the audacity of hope births unfamiliar imagination. Quoting St. Paul again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v.5). Put differently, if Christ is the music, then our minds respond accordingly – Take note, keep awake, and listen. Christ, like music and poetry, has the potential to transform our attitudes and ambitions. Like the shepherds, we walk away from the angelic concert changed. We are sent out on mission wanting to teach anyone and everyone this new way of participating in the Divine mind. When was the last time you stopped in the middle of conversation and quoted lyrics to a poem, song, or hymn? On this octave of Christmas why not give it a go?
The Rev. Brandon Duke serves as parish priest to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Follow his blog at https://fatherbrandon.com.
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.
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.
“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.
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.