Jan. 1, 2012 The Holy Name

Before each of our children was born, in those long months of waiting and preparation, one of the most important things we did was the hard work of choosing a name for this new member of our family. Nurseries and toys and baby clothes, like the sweater I just finished for my granddaughter Sofia, are very soon outgrown, but a name is something you have for life, so it seemed like a momentous decision.

First of all, every child would be born into our family, so they would bear our family name – they would all be Boswells. So, names always have to do with belonging. Names bind people together and give them a sense of connection – I think that’s one reason so many people are fascinated by researching their genealogy. Finding your place in a family tree connects you to all those other people and gives you roots. And it is true also in the case of adoption – through adoption, a child is grafted in to a new family tree when he or she receives the name of this new family. By receiving a new name, a child belongs in this family, as surely as if he or she had been born into it biologically.

And for that reason it has also been the tradition for a wife to change her name to that of her husband’s family when they get married. Whatever else is involved in the politics of that tradition, it is a powerful symbol that these two people are now united in their belonging. A new connection has been made, so that their children will belong together under one name, the family name.

But of course the choice of name has to do with the first name. People have a lot of ways of choosing names – many people use family names, the name of a grandmother or uncle or cousin we loved and respected, whose name we want to pass on to our child like a treasured heirloom. Some people just choose names because they like the way they sound. We know families whose children’s names all begin with the same letter, for example. When we chose our children’s names we certainly chose names we liked the sound of, and we did choose a few special family names – Emily’s middle name is Celestine after my mother’s mother, who was a remarkable woman – but we chose names by their meanings as well. We tried to choose names for some character or grace that we hoped and prayed would belong to that child. And as our children have grown up, it seems like they have grown into their name remarkably well. I’ll just give one example: Emily means creative and industrious – or so we read in the baby name book we consulted way back then – and she is a musician and very artistic and one of the hardest-working people I have ever known.

People don’t think about names as much these days, perhaps, but names were a much more weighty thing in the past – even in the fairly recent past it would have been common for people to speak of a person who is a credit to his or her family’s name, or maybe of one who is a blot on the family name. But to the Israelites – to ancient people in general – a name had immense significance. A name really embodied who you were as a whole person. To know a person’s name gave you power over them, because in letting you know their name, they were allowing you to know the essence of who they were; they were letting you see into their mind and heart, letting you know their motives and intentions. If you remember the story of Rumpelstiltskin, that reflects that kind of thinking.

Also, to name someone was to really call them into being. That is what Adam was doing when he gave names to all the animals in the Garden. He was given dominion over them, not to boss them around, but to give them being, to give them the gift of self. And we are told that God knows each and every one of the stars, calling each by name.

In ancient thought, a name is who a person is, and that is why all through the Bible we read about people calling on the name of the Lord – not because they are just using the words as we might think about it, but because they are seeking to know God intimately, to see him as he truly is.

And in the lovely passage we read from the book of Numbers today, God gives Moses a blessing to teach to his brother Aaron, and to his sons – to all the priests who are to minister to God’s people. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” And then God says to Moses: “So shall you put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

God isn’t just wishing his people well, and he isn’t just thinking kindly thoughts toward them by this blessing. He is giving himself – all that he is – to his people. They are to belong to him, and he is to belong to them, which is a huge and incomprehensible thing to say of the eternal Creator of the Universe and a little band of homeless people.

Many years later, through the prophet Jeremiah, God promised his people that he would keep on putting his name on us, that we would keep on belonging to him, forever, because he would make a new covenant with us. A covenant is a bond, like a marriage, and God promised to renew his covenant with his people like the renewal of wedding vows; only these vows would be unbreakable forever. Chapter 31 of Jeremiah tells about this unbreakable bond – beginning at verse 33 he says, “This is the covenant that I will make with Israel after those days, declares the Lord. I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God and they shall be my people…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.”

And God brought about this unbreakable covenant through the name that is above every other name, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the name of the one who made himself nothing, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And that name belongs to the one whose birth we celebrate in this most holy season, as we read today in the gospel of Luke, “And the end of eight days when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” And Matthew tells us that the angel spoke to Joseph about the child’s name as well, when he came to reassure him: “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus – Yeshua in Hebrew – which means Savior, for he will save his people from their sins.” And that name, Jesus, is the name God puts on his people now, so that we belong to him, so that we receive adoption as his children, so that we know him — and even more, so that we, like human children, may grow up into his likeness. In his first epistle, John writes, “Beloved, we are God’s children now and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when he appears we shall see him as he is.”

The world likes to try to name us – we are husbands or wives, teachers or retired people or farmers, North Country people or transplants, we are just home-makers or just children or just teenagers or just senior citizens. And all those names fall short of saying who we are truly and completely, they define us in part but they also set limits around us.

And sometimes we name ourselves – “I’m so stupid” – do you ever say that? – “I’m such a failure” – “I’m hopeless” – “I’m worthless”.  But none of these names can ever truly belong to us because God has given us his own name, the name that is above every other name, the name that says we belong to him and he to us, not because he is a thing we can possess but because he has given himself to us freely in love. He gives us his Spirit to live in our hearts; he gives us his body and blood to feed our spirits in Holy Communion, he gives us his love and forgiveness daily to help us in our weakness. And one thing more he gives us: when we receive the name of Jesus as our identity at baptism, we inherit his ministry. Long ago, when God called Abraham he told him, “I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And now that we have been given the greatest name, the name of Jesus, we become the ones who carry the blessing of God to the world around us, not because we are better than anyone else, but because we belong to the one who is able to save everyone from sin. Sin is what tries to un-name us, it tries to give us false names that make us less than we are. But we have been given the gift of knowing the only name that can heal, the only name that can make people whole, and wholly themselves, the name of Jesus. And with that gift comes the responsibility to make his name known to the world around us so that through us all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

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