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What's  in a Name?

Jackie Parry, January 1st, 2017 - The Circumcision and the Naming of Christ

“What’s in a name?”  Juliet asks Romeo in Shakespeare’s well known play of love, conflict and tragedy.  “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

Names are more than just labels.  They are about a person’s life and way of being; often having a particular action or value associated with it.  In some ways a name, or nickname, can capture and expresses the essence of a person, revealing qualities and characteristics about their personality.  For example: Tina twinkle-toes, Roger the Dodger, Father Christmas, Saucy Sue, Dora the Explorer, Eddie the Eagle.  A friend of mine has a daughter called Abigail, but as a baby she suffered dreadfully with colic, and so he gave her the nickname ‘Abi-snail’, because she left a trail of vomit wherever she went.  (ugh, gross!)

There are even biblical nicknames: Doubting Thomas, Jonah the Moaner, Peter the Rock and of course, the Lord God, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. 

Sometimes names reveal experiences and relationships, for example, mummy, daddy, darling, love.  When my eldest son Edd, was a baby, our nickname for him was Eddybear, which is fairly self-explanatory, but his nickname wasn’t something we just called him, it was also expressing the relationship we have with him, that of love and a bond between a parent and child.

Names can identify and reveal our personhood.  That’s why it sometimes hurts when someone forgets our name.  Names can disclose who we are, how we are, where we come from, where we are going.  We can even see these genealogies in Holy Scripture, especially in Genesis in the Old Testament and in St Matthews Gospel, in which Matthew explains and names the genealogy of Jesus. 

God uses names and name changes to establish relationship, identity, and belonging.  God invited Adam to name the animals and then gave Adam dominion over creation.  Adam named Eve because she came from his side.  Moses was so named because he was drawn from the water.  Abram and Sarai were renamed Abraham and Sarah highlighting their new relationship to God.  Saul’s life was transformed on the Damascus Road, and he became Paul.

So we can see that names have more significant meaning than we realise.  Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, means Salvation, ‘the Lord saves’.  Within the name is Jesus’s vocation, it is a relationship to humanity, and a desire of God.  The Christ means the anointed one, the Messiah.  This description of the saviour is foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures, and we also read this in the Gospels where the angel says to Mary, “you must call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Luke tells us that on the eighth day after His birth, Mary and Joseph took their newborn son to be circumcised as was, and still is, the requirement for Jewish males.  It is during the liturgy of circumcision when the baby boy is named.  That day, long ago in ancient Palestine, the Moyle, which is the specially trained Rabbi who performs the ritual of circumcision, would have said something like “Name this child,” to which Mary and Joseph will have responded, “Jesus.” 

And there it was.  Such a small, simple act, but with huge significance!  He was named Jesus as it had been foretold by the Angel of the Lord, who had come to Mary and told her that she would have a son and would name him Jesus.  God had ordained that this child would be known as God’s salvation, deliverer, rescuer. 

There is power in the name Jesus, but there is something even more powerful about giving that name to this child.  After all, Jesus was not just the firstborn child of Joseph the carpenter and Mary of Nazareth.  He was the incarnation of God; God amongst us; the God of all Creation, made in human form. 

The world into which Jesus was born knew only a God who was so distant from the people, so apart, so other worldly, that God’s name could not even be spoken out loud. This was the same God who spoke with Moses from a burning bush and warned him not to look at God or else Moses would die.  Elijah tried to glimpse this same God in gale force winds, earthquake and fire, but could only find God in the still, small voice.  This was the same God about whom the prophet Ezra said the people could not lift their faces heavenward, because they were not worthy to be seen by God.  No wonder the coming ministry of this little child would be such a challenge, and such a threat, to Jewish authorities. 

Jesus – God’s salvation – brought not only a name to God, but a face as well.  Suddenly people could not only speak about God, they could speak to God and could see God’s face as they did so. 

So, what does the name Jesus mean to you?  How do we use that name?  Do we use it with reverence and awe, for as the Scripture tells us, “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow…” (Philippians 2:10a), or do we pass it to one side as simply a name, or for some, as an expletive?

Today, January 1, the world is concerned about the New Year with its resolutions, football, diets, New Year sales.  The Church, however, is focused on a name, Jesus.  It is the name that reveals God’s life and purpose, claims us as God’s people, and changes our lives. 

A monk of the Eastern Church said this:

“We say ‘Jesus’ and we rest in a plenitude and totality that can no longer be taken from us.  The name of Jesus then becomes a bearer of the whole Christ.  It brings us into His total presence. 

In this presence are found all the realities towards which the name has served as a means of approach: salvation and pardon, the Incarnation and the Transfiguration, the Church and the Eucharist, the Father and the Spirit. 

All things then appear to us “gathered together in Christ Jesus.” (Eph.1:10) 

We begin another new year very conscious of what may have gone wrong in the past year; but also conscious of the opportunities and potential ahead of us.  Perhaps one of our new year’s resolutions should not be about diets or quitting smoking, but should be to remember the true meaning of the name Jesus?  Taking that name into every circumstance of our life, into every relationship we have, into everything we do, to all whom we meet.  Letting it fill our every thought, echo through our every word, occupy our heart, guide and direct our every step. 

I love the words of today’s Collect:

“Almighty God, whose blessed Son was circumcised in obedience to the law for our sake and given the name that is above every name: give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, to worship him in the freedom of the Spirit, and to proclaim him as the Saviour of the world; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen” 

The name Jesus literally means “Salvation”, God is with us; so whatever 2017 brings, remember that God is always present, giving us strength, guidance and love. 

And so, in Jesus’ name, may we all go in peace to love and serve the Lord.



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