January 1, 2017
Philippians 2:5-11 (alternate)
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.
In seminary, all candidates for ordained ministry had to do a unit of what is called Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE for short. We were set loose in an institution, be it a hospital, a nursing home, a jail, or what have you, to develop relationships with the patients or inmates and provide them with one-on-one pastoral care. The idea is that our presence might provide a sense of healing for the patient. I was assigned to a home for boys who were victims of parental abuse, or neglect.
One of the lessons I learned almost from the first day was the power of remembering the child’s name. Despite the often painful and distressing psychological problems that dominated the lives of these youngsters, they were absolutely overwhelmed with joy when you called them by name.
I made it a point from then on to remember the name of each youth that I met, so as to break down whatever barrier would hamper my relationship with him or her. The youngster now felt accepted—he belonged. It was an absolutely fascinating experience.
On January 1, which falls on a Sunday in 2017, we also celebrate the Name of Jesus. It’s one of those days that doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves because not many churches have services on New Year’s Day – New Year’s Eve, maybe. The Revised Common Lectionary calls it a “Lesser Festival”, which I consider a misnomer because; what could be more powerful than the name of Jesus, “the name that is above every name.” [Philippians 2:9]
The feast day of the Name of Jesus, and our readings, invite us to reflect on the use of names. The name Jesus is the name given by the Angel before he was conceived in the womb, our gospel reading says.
Eight days after his birth Jesus is circumcised, receiving the Jewish ritual that signified God’s covenant with the people of Israel, and he is named. These two rituals go together; they are Jesus’ initiation into the Jewish covenant community.
In Biblical times, great significance was attached to personal names. They revealed character and identity and signified existence. They served as an important symbol. Names reveal an essential nature, like an occupation. Some people have last names that derived from an occupation; such as, Smith, Baker, Taylor, Farmer.
Expectant parents down through the centuries spend a great deal of time deciding on their coming newborn’s name. It is a permanent imprint on the future of their child. Some name them after a favorite ancestor; others select something because they like the sound. A few choose the name of a famous person whose memory and value they want to perpetuate in the new life, hoping the child will live up to the values of the namesake.
People also have gotten a lot of power and prestige by attaching themselves to the names of powerful people. We drop names in order to make ourselves feel, for a moment, more important. We invoke names of others when we want to add weight to the things that we say.
There is also something about “naming” things that bring them to a human level. In fact, we invent names for things in order to tame them, or else give ourselves the illusion that we have tamed them.
Jesus’ name means “Yahweh saves.” In the Gospel according to Matthew, the angel explicitly explains to Joseph that he is to name the child Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins.” [Mt. 1:21]
The people of Israel knew that the name of God was so important that it was considered sacrilegious to utter God’s name. God’s name had power that must not be abused. To guard against this abuse, God’s name became something that was not used at all.
But the name of the child Jesus brings God to a human level. YAWEH saves. This is not a distant God, but a God who now lives among us. This is not a terrible God who strikes only fear in the hearts of humans, but a God who now loves us as we are; and allows us to know a name, a face, a life lived among us. And so, the name JESUS becomes a holy one for all time and for all humanity.
When God gave us Jesus, it was a demonstration of God’s love for humankind. It reminds us how committed God is to us, to our existence, that God would choose to become human, vulnerable, one of us.
Today, the liturgical calendar gives us something significant to think about on the secular calendar’s New Year’s Day – something besides football games and overcoming the effect of Saturday night’s partying. Beginning the year with the name of Jesus makes clear that God does the work of saving.
We can use the beginning of 2017 to vow to spend every day of it remembering not only that the Name of Jesus is like no other name and that it is Holy, but also to remember that it summarizes all that our Savior is and all that we can become through him.
And so, as we step boldly once again across the threshold into a new year, perhaps our greatest hope should be that God in Jesus is not finished with us, but is still at work in our lives and in creation. I close with the following hymn, one of my favorites, and wish you all the joys of the new year:
Take the name of Jesus with you,
Child of sorrow and of woe;
It will joy and comfort give you,
Take it then where’er you go.
Precious name! Oh, how sweet!
Hope of earth and joy of heav’n;
Precious name! Oh, how sweet!
Hope of earth and joy of heav’n.
[This Far by Faith #159]
Holy God, at the dawning of 2017 we come to you with thanksgiving and praise. We give thanks for your abiding presence through the ages and praise you for bringing us through another year in the powerful and holy name of Jesus. Be with us this year and forever. Amen