An Audacious Name

In the Episcopal Church and some other denominations, January 1 is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Joe wrote this reflection for January 1, the Feast of the Holy Name, published on the Episcopal Church’s website Sermons That Work in 2011 and 2018.

Below is a version that appeared in our book Love in Flesh and Bone. I love Joe’s meditation on the intertwining of our names and the name of Jesus and his reflection on a time he was asked to perform an exorcism.

Names can tell us a lot about a person’s character and the role he or she plays in a story.

One of the pleasures of reading literature is discovering the meaning of characters’ names. Authors often give their characters names to tell us something important about who they are and about what they will do in the story. The great master of giving characters names is Charles Dickens. He gives us the policemen, Sharpeye and Quickear; the family physician, Dr. Pilkens; and the surgeon, Dr. Slasher. The Bigwig Family are the stateliest people in town; Mr. Bounderby is a self-made man and social climber; Abel Magwitch is an able magic witch who can transform a poor boy into a prince; and the Reverend Mechisedech Howler is a preacher of the ranting persuasion.

I suspect one of the things that children like about the Harry Potter stories is the names of the characters.[1] They have fun sounds and their meanings are none too subtle. Severusis a Latin word for “severe” or “strict,” and Professor Severus Snape is a strict teacher if ever there was one. The malevolent Voldemort’s name means “flight of death” in French; and in English, Voldemort with a “V” has many sinister connotations: villain, voracious, vampire, virulent, vice, viper, violent, venal, vituperative, and (as we learned in a recent election) vulture venture capitalist! The headmaster Dumbledore’s first name is Albus, which means “white.” So we may suppose that he is the leader of those on the side of light, who will fight against the Dark Lord Voldemort.

Today in our church calendar we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. In the Gospels, we are told that God is the one who gives Jesus his name. And in giving Jesus his name, God is telling us something important about Jesus’ character and the role he will play in the story of God’s love for the world.

Luke tells us that “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). It was apparently the custom in Jesus’ day to name a male child at the time of circumcision, the act by which he was made a member of the people of God. That Jesus’ parents had him circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth demonstrates their piety and fidelity to the law of Moses. The beginning of the story of Jesus is part of the larger, ongoing story of God’s steadfast love for God’s people. This is no airy myth of a strange god’s descent from heaven, but the story of the fearsome, covenant love of the God of Israel who is taking on flesh and blood. If the mention of the circumcision and naming of Jesus makes us cringe a little, maybe it should.

It is Matthew who tells us the meaning of Jesus’ name. An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Mary will “bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus. For he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Yeshua,” which probably meant “Yahweh helps.” Through an association with the Hebrew root for “save,” we get the popular etymology of Jesus’ name: “God saves.” But note, in the name of “Jesus” we don’t have an allusion to the deity in general, but rather to the particular God of Israel, Yahweh, who is called upon to remember his promises to our ancestors and to save us. It is this God, who takes on flesh and blood, who is named in Jesus’ name, and who, in Jesus, will save his people from their sins.

“Yahweh saves.” This is a rather audacious name to give a baby. Since many of us know the end of the story, it may seem less so. But we should not overlook what an extraordinary thing the naming of Jesus is. Before his teaching and preaching, before his healings and miracles, before his death and resurrection, Jesus is already identified by God as the one through whom he will save his people. An eight-day-old baby named Jesus. In the naming of a tiny child we already catch a glimpse God’s plan to save the world through the gift of a vulnerable human being.

The striking combination of the grandness of Jesus’ name and the vulnerability of his tiny body is portrayed in Simeon, a devout old man who was looking for the consolation of Israel. When the baby Jesus was presented in the temple, Simeon takes the child in his arms, and he praises God saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32). A tiny child, still small enough to be held in the arms of an elderly man, elicits this song praising God for the salvation of all peoples. But then a shadow falls as Simeon turns to Mary and tells her, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:34–35). God’s love in flesh and blood, seen in a baby named Jesus, is held in the arms of a dying old man.

It may surprise many of us to learn that we have also been given an audacious name. The catechism in older versions of The Book of Common Prayer used to begin with this question: “What is your Name?” After saying your name, you were then asked, “Who gave you this Name?” The answer: “My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” [2] Our names and baptism are linked the way names and circumcision were in Jesus’ day. This is how we are made members of the people of God and inheritors of the promises of the covenant. In the case of baptism, however, it is the new covenant in Christ Jesus, by which “we are adopted as God’s children, made members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God,” as we are told in the current Prayer Book. [3]

Our names, given in baptism, tell us something important about our character and the role we are to play in the story of God’s love for the world. Who are we? Most fundamentally, most deeply we are beloved children of God, members of Christ, and through him heirs of the promised kingdom. How are we to live? We have our roles to play in God’s story of salvation by turning away from evil and wrongdoing, but putting our faith and trust in Christ, by believing in the articles of faith, and by keeping God’s commandments. Yes, we are vulnerable human beings with ordinary names like Harry and Sally and Sue. But we have also been given names in baptism that identify us as extraordinary participants in the story of God’s love for the world. With water, the Word, and the giving of a name, we fallible, flesh and blood humans are given the task of participating in Christ’s ongoing reconciliation of the world. No weapons. No superhuman powers. No superior knowledge. Just water, the Word, and the giving of a name.

When the devil assailed Martin Luther, he would say, “I am baptized.” I remember this phrase as I am driving to do a house blessing for a family whose son thinks he is possessed by the devil. The family originally asked for someone to perform an exorcism. In our Episcopal Church, such requests get passed on to the bishop who then decides whether and by whom and how the rite is performed. Today, I give thanks for the ministry of bishops! Exorcism is way beyond my pay grade. The family asks if I can at least come and bless their home. I can, and I am on my way with my copy of the Book of Occasional Services.

I had met the boy once and I think his problems are more psychiatric than demonic. Besides, I’m not too sure what I think of the devil and demonic possession. I’ve never experienced these things. The closest I’ve come is looking into the crazed, bloodshot eyes and dilated pupils of a crack addict. I suppose there is a reason why crack cocaine is called the devil’s candy. But, as bad as that is, that is addiction, not demonic possession. What if at this home I find myself staring into the eyes of the devil?

I shiver and need to pull off to the side of the road. I don’t think it likely, but what if? I don’t know if I am ready. I breathe deeply, and, of all things, I remember Martin Luther. I lean forward so that my forehead touches the steering wheel and I say inwardly, “I am baptized.” I breathe again, and this time in my mind I rehearse the catechism: “What is your Name?” “Joseph.” “Who gave you this Name?” “My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” I sit back in my seat, exhale, and now another name fills my head. This time I say it out loud, “Jesus.”

I put the car in first gear and I get back on the road. I can be a bit slow. In Luke, the seventy disciples, who were sent out by Jesus, returned to him rejoicing, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us” (10:17). In Jesus’ name: Yahweh helps! God saves! In the Acts of the Apostles the name of Jesus conveys the reality and power of his presence in salvation (2:21), healing (3:6), and forgiveness (10:43). In the letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes, “Therefore, God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (2:5–11). I sing the first verse of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” a few times over as I pull up to the house.

I am welcomed into a tidy, middle class home. We share a cup of coffee in the kitchen and talk about the traffic. We even joke a bit as we wait for their teenage daughter to join us. I think to myself that this seems like a normal, loving family that happens to have a troubled adolescent boy. So what else is new? The daughter comes downstairs holding a necklace in her hand. She asks if I can bless it before we start. I take the necklace, ask God’s blessing, and return it to the smiling girl.

We all gather at the entrance of the house for the beginning of the house blessing. I hold up my prayer book and I say the opening invocation loudly enough to be heard throughout the house: in every room, under every bed, in every closet: “Let the mighty power of the Holy God be present in this place to banish from it every unclean spirit, to cleanse it from every residue of evil, and to make it a secure habitation for those who dwell in it; in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

[1] For reflections on names in Harry Potter, I am indebted to Terry Eagleton, How to Read Literature, 168–74.

[2] The Book of Common Prayer (1928), 577.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 858.

Artwork The Wilton Diptych, ca. 1395-99

  1. Happy New Year Amy and Joe,

    As I stated in my last blog comment both of you, from the very first day in Poughkeepsie, NY, have made me use my brain more since my college days. I found your last blog very interesting for two reasons 1) you knew you were not qualified to perform an exorcism, 2) but you still wanted to help these people through a tough part of their lives.

    Godspeed Peter

    On Tue, Jan 1, 2019, 9:07 AM Amy and Joe Go to Africa wrote:

    > Amy Richter posted: ” In the Episcopal Church and some other > denominations, January 1 is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Joe wrote > this reflection for January 1, the Feast of the Holy Name, published on the > Episcopal Church’s website Sermons That Work in 2011 and 2018. ” >

    Liked by 1 person

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