Being given a name is an important moment in our lives. Every culture I’m aware of has a way of marking this occasion, The appropriate time, place, and name-giver are important considerations. In some cultures, names are kept for one’s entire life. Most of us will keep our given name until we die. In others, one’s name changes at certain milestone events, such as a wedding or the birth of a child. In some religious traditions, one’s name changes depending on one’s role in the religion; think of the tradition of confirmation names or religious whose names change when they take vows to enter the monastery. Some people go by different names in different places; a James at the office might well be Jimmy at home.
Christians have some interesting customs around names. I mentioned confirmation names a moment ago; these were saints’ names, given at the time of confirmation. Usually chosen by the confirmand and the confirming bishop—though sometimes imposed by the bishop alone—in hopes that the confirmand would emulate the saint’s example. Monks and nuns often take “names in religion” to symbolise their leaving one life and beginning another, dying to the self and being reborn in community. A tradition in some Christian circles is to name a child for the saint on whose feast they are born. (We have adopted this practice for naming pets, which is how you end up with cats named Cuthbert and Pachomius. Cats are thoroughly non-monastic about their lives; I hope the two great monastic fathers whose names they bear have senses of humour.)
Wherever the name comes from, many Christian infants are “officially” named at their baptisms. The parents have selected the name prior and shared it with the person doing the baptizing, but it may be news to much of the church community. This makes sense, I think. Baptism is the sacrament of inclusion in Christ’s Church, membership in the Body of Christ, and so an introduction by name makes sense. In this way, perhaps we all take names in religion, just many of us got them before we could remember.
I was once told a story by a priest about a family who came to have their newborn son baptized. He had spoken with the parents during the pregnancy and was delighted to be part of this moment. When he asked what the child was to be named, the parents told him that they wanted him to pick the name. He was stunned. Such an important decision should belong to the family, he thought, not to a priest on a Sunday morning. He said to the parents “If I name this child, it will be a biblical name.” The parents were delighted until he continued, saying “Og of Bashan is a biblical name.” The parents quickly decided that Christopher would be suitable and on went the liturgy.
In the tradition into which Jesus was born, the naming of a male child took place eight days after the birth, at the time of his circumcision. He was marked as belonging to the covenant of Abraham and given his name at the same time. It was the tradition among Jesus’s people that the child’s father would choose their name. In this case, however, God had given the name of Jesus to Mary through the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation and again to Joseph in his dream. Any name delivered directly from God would be important, especially to people who take angelic visits and dream-visions seriously, but the name Jesus would be especially meaningful. Jesus means “Yahweh’s salvation”. A very important name, indeed.
You and I have the advantage of a couple of millennia of wisdom and reflection to draw upon. We’re in a church on Sunday morning, so we’re probably persuaded—or at least curious enough to inquire—that Jesus is, indeed, the promised Messiah, fully human and fully God. The people we read about in the Gospel stories, however, did not have the benefit of our position in history. Many of them certainly knew the prophecies of the people of Israel, but it would have been difficult to persuade even the most eager to believe that a child born in Jesus’s circumstances, lying in an animal’s feeding trough, might be the promised salvation of God. So, for the first to know the good news, God sent unmistakable signs. For Mary, an angel. For Joseph, a powerful dream. For Elizabeth, the jumping of her own son, John, in her womb. For the magi, who we will meet on Friday, a special star in the sky. For the shepherds, tending their flocks, an angelic choir praising God in the sky and then telling them to hurry to Bethlehem and find the child lying in a manger.
The circumstances of Jesus’s birth do not seem auspicious. Poor, unmarried parents, far from home, in an occupied country with a paranoid and selfish governor, in a crowded city, in a rude shelter intended for livestock, and lying in a feeder for the animals. But they are important because they are what allow everyone who seeks God’s salvation to find him. If the shepherds had been sent to find a newborn baby, there were no doubt many options in Bethlehem. But surely there was only one lying in a manger. And on meeting the newborn babe, and learning his name, the shepherds left the stable praising God and repeating that holy name. Jesus. The magi, of another religion and culture, followed a sign that they could read, the star in the sky. When they arrived and met the Holy Family, they learned Jesus’s name and, no doubt, its meaning. Surely, when they left for home without returning to Herod, this revelation was an important part of their conversations.
This is why the naming of Jesus is so important. Yes, it demonstrates the Holy Family’s commitment to their own traditions and solidifies Jesus’s place in David’s line as an observant Jew of first century Judea. But Jesus’s name, the Name above every name given to him by God in angelic messages and dreamt visions, is one that changes people. Every single person who met Jesus in that stable, or in Egypt, or in his earthly ministry went away with his name on their lips and the praise of God overflowing out of their hearts. Every single person who met God’s salvation found themselves transfigured by the encounter and carried that new light with them into the world.
Every person. Shepherds and magi. You and me. Transfigured by the salvation of God in Jesus the Christ.
Thanks be to God.
Photo by Ruan Richard Rodrigues on Unsplash