What’s in a name? Apparently, quite a bit. My brother and I are named after our two grandfathers, a tribute to family loyalty and diplomacy. Names signify: not just in a conventional fashion, to distinguish one thing from another; if that were the case, then we could substitute unique numbers, as has been done in dystopian novels and movies about the dim future, and also by our own Social Security Administration.
On the contrary, names signify. They identify in a deeper sense who we are. They place us in a tradition or even against a tradition. I’ve already mentioned the role of the family name. Some people in my own family, and maybe yours, are named after saints and some after movie actors. By this time, you may be thinking about the significance of your own name. However it’s done, a name has resonance, with significance for ourselves and for others, not least of all for those who bestowed it upon us.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Name, remembering Jesus’ naming on the eighth day after his birth. Under the Law of Moses, Jesus’ name was given at his circumcision, a reminder of the covenant that God had made with the family of Abraham. Circumcision was itself “a sign of the covenant” (Gen. 17:11), a sign of relationship between God and the Jewish people. It’s in this context that the name was bestowed.
God’s own name was shrouded in mystery. When Moses asked God to identify himself at the burning bush, God said, “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” (Ex. 3:14). Not many clues there. God told Moses he was “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6): a historical reference to a tradition of relationship with Abraham’s family, but not really a personal identifier. Some traditions in Israel concealed God’s name behind the term “the Lord,” a reverent circumlocution that spoke volumes without giving much away. God’s name was mysterious.
In ancient Israel, “the name of the Lord” was often invoked in worship. As the People of God journeyed on the way, they would pause, build an altar for sacrifice, and “call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 12:8). In Exodus, God promises to bless the People when they make offerings and “remember his name” (Ex. 20:24). Moses told them later that the sanctuary was the place that God would choose “as a dwelling for his name” (Deut. 12:11). The “name” was the personification of God, the sign that God would draw near.
Jesus’ own name had significance. It’s a Greek form of the name Joshua, meaning “God saves.” Jesus’ name actually incorporates God’s own name, the name that is mostly concealed, but that is now revealed in Jesus Christ. The name was given to Mary by the angel Gabriel, but it came from God. Jesus came to save us from our sins. When Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, God’s claim on him, and his true significance for the human race, was revealed in the giving of his name.
Today we gather, not only to celebrate this feast, but to baptize the newest member of the Church, welcoming him into the family of God. We also celebrate the laying on of hands with prayer as we welcome another baptized member of the Church in confirmation. Today we are invoking the name of the Lord in worship, remembering all his blessings to us in the past, and calling upon God to bestow his blessing now. In this sanctuary we are calling upon the name of the Lord, to be faithful to us in the future, as we remember the covenant he has made with us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
These rites signify the reality of God’s presence. Names are given and recalled today, spoken aloud in each of these rites. What takes place here today has transformative power, if we will open ourselves up to the presence of God. God’s Spirit is present and alive as we worship. These rites are not magical, because they will require us to follow through in our lives. Today, God is addressing each of us by name, causing us to remember who we are in relationship with God, and to claim that identity anew.