|"Circumcision of Christ" by Albrecht Durer|
So what’s in a name? I really like my name—Owen. It’s a sign of my Welsh identity. I guess my dad wanted to preserve his ethnic heritage in me and gave me a specifically Welsh name. “Owen” means “Young Warrior.” Although I’ve never been a warrior and can no longer officially qualify as “young,” I’m proud of it all the same. I share it with a legendary Welsh rebel hero Owen Glendower (immortalized as a character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1) and with the mythical Welsh hero Sir Owen, Knight of the Round Table. When my father hung this moniker on me it was the 404th most popular boy’s name in the U.S. At the time, I was the only Owen I knew. Today, however, the name has risen in popularity even among the non-Welsh and is the 21st most popular boy’s name in the U.S.
In the U.K. they’d say that Owen is my Christian name. That title for what we Yanks call a first or given name comes from the tradition of officially naming a child at baptism or christening.
(BTW, here in Philadelphia, the term “christening” is often used synonymously with baptism. Technically, the two are not the same. Baptism is the sacrament of washing with water which officially makes one a Christian. Christening is the anointing with oil which is often done at baptism but is not, strictly speaking, a necessary part of the sacrament. I just thought you should know that!).
I suspect that the high infant mortality rate throughout much of human history is what prompted the postponement of naming until a child was officially introduced to the community. You wouldn’t want to bring a newborn (with a brand new immune system) out into the world until he or she had at least a week to get used to being born. In the world of our gospel text for this feast (Luke 2:15-21), a week had to elapse to make sure the child was strong enough to survive before parents would risk embracing the child’s identity. A baby like Jesus would be nameless until the eighth day when his vitality seemed a little more certain and he could be ritually received as a child of Abraham. So, too, we Christians used to wait until baptism before conferring a name on a child. This also explains our Western calendar. Jesus’ birthday might be celebrated on December 25th, but the Year of Our Lord couldn’t begin until the child had a name and an identity.
And what is that identity? Our Lord’s name is a contraction of a Hebrew name roughly transliterated as Yehoshu’a, which is usually translated to mean “Yahweh Saves,” or “Yahweh Delivers,” or “Yahweh Rescues.” It’s a variation on the name which we pronounce “Joshua,” too.
So what’s in a name? What does the name of Jesus mean to you? I know I have so often used this sacred name in vain, and for lots of Americans it might be nothing more than a swear word. But what can speaking those sacred syllables do for us? We’re told that prayers are answered if prayed in the name of Jesus. So what is it about that name?
I think it might be a good idea for us to contemplate the name of Jesus from time to time. If Jesus’ identity is linked to his name—which scripture tells us it is (See Matthew 1:21)—how does that identity speak to you? Jesus is our Savior, but from what or for what are we saved or rescued? Traditional Church orthodoxy says that we are rescued by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross from taking our own eternal punishment after death. Okay. That’s cool, but what does it mean for you now?
It’s really a bizarre thought to look at the figure of a man being tortured to death by being impaled on a cross of wood and associating that horrific image with being rescued. But that very image carries with it some powerful truths which my heart needs to embrace. The first is that suffering is real and unavoidable, and to speak the name of Jesus is to be reminded of one who suffers. Perhaps that is to move me to compassion and the knowledge of shared humanity. But then, speaking that name reminds me of God’s love in embracing our human suffering, participating in it, and enduring it without complaint or bitterness. Then the name of Jesus reminds me that suffering and death were not final. That name which his enemies hoped would die with him on the cross became, within a single generation, the name above all names. The crucified criminal’s name became the prayer on the lips of the Roman world.
When we say the name of Jesus we say that God rescues us. We are rescued from insular selfishness, from abandonment and worthlessness, and from the great evils of complacency and despair. How beautiful is the name of Jesus when we say it in faith and confidence!
Thanks for reading, my friends. May you all have a blessed, safe, and happy 2017 in the name of Jesus!