Thoughts on the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2017

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Juliet is frustrated that her love for Romeo is forbidden for no other reason than that he belongs to her family’s rival family, and has their name:

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet!

She goes on to suggest Romeo should “doff” his name, which is, she says, “no part” of him, and in exchange he can have her!

Juliet is a well-educated girl, so she is surely aware that she is sharply taking one side in a debate about language that went on quite vigorously at the Renaissance. One view, which Juliet takes, is Aristotelian, that language is arbitrary and the meanings of words are arrived at by “custom.” The other, which is Platonic, is quite opposite. According to this, there is a profound relationship between what things are called and what they are. So, even if we all agreed that from this minute on we’d call a rose a splunk, it wouldn’t work. There’d be something about a rose that “splunk” just doesn’t get. “My love is like a red, red splunk”? I don’t think so![1]

In this matter, there’s no doubt that ancient Israel held to a view that, if not exactly the same, certainly resonates much more closely with the Platonic view than with the Aristotelian. Names mattered. What you called a thing was what it was.[2] And if you knew something or someone’s name, you had thereby a measure of power over them. That is why there is all that care over the name of God in the Bible. God’s name is not revealed to just anyone, and it is not to be spoken by just anyone. It is revealed to those who are to be called into a special relationship with God, to those who are his people. And in time, of course, this reverence for the Name of God comes to mean that it is simply not to be uttered.[3]

All of which brings us to today’s festival, “The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

First, let us look at the gospel, at Luke’s account of the shepherds’ visit to the manger. It is rather prosaic, after the splendor and the glory of the angels’ appearance, but it is carefully worded, nonetheless. The shepherds tell what has happened to them, and what has been told them about the child, and all are amazed—as well they might be. But it is surely Mary’s reaction that the evangelist wants us to note most of all: she “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart,” as our NRSV translation has it. Actually, that may not be accurate. According one very thorough word-study[4] of the word translated “ponder” (Greek: συμβάλλω), what it means in contexts such as this is not so much “ponder,” as if Mary were trying to work something out, but rather, “understand”. Luke is telling us that Mary gets it! She interprets God’s intervention in her life clearly and correctly. And in this understanding she and Joseph move to the next step in the story, which is that after eight days the child is circumcised and given the name Jesus, “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

What then is so special about this name? Saint Luke, unlike Saint Matthew, does not actually spell out a meaning for the name “Jesus”—that he “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1.21). But Luke surely expects his readers to know who “Jesus”—that is, in its Hebrew form, the Old Testament’s “Joshua”—actually was: that he was the leader of his people, who brought Israel out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Luke expects us to know that, and to draw our own conclusions: that here is the new Joshua, who will lead us, as our Book of Common Prayer has it, “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”

But even when we have said that, we may well ask, how will this child have the power to do these things? Who has power over sin and death but God alone? And that is where we turn finally to the passage from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard earlier. Some think Paul himself wrote these words, some think that he was quoting a hymn that the Philippians themselves were familiar with. It really doesn’t matter—either way he thought that the words expressed what he wanted to say. He begins by pointing out that Christ Jesus “did not think equality with God a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” As Christina Rossetti puts it in the hymn that we shall sing in a few minutes—

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him

Nor earth sustain;

Heaven and earth shall flee away

When He comes to reign:

In the bleak mid-winter

A stable-place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty,

Jesus Christ.

But that was by no means the end of it! Following on Jesus’ being faithful even to the cross, Paul says,

God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name.

And what name is that? For Pharisaic Jew such as Paul there can be only one possible answer to that question. It is the Name of God.[5] That, Paul says, is the Name bestowed upon Jesus. And then, in clear and obviously deliberate allusion to passages in Isaiah where God declares that He the LORD alone is God, that beside Him there is no God, and that “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess” (Isa. 45.23), Paul says that all this—this bestowing of the Divine Name on Jesus—has come to pass,

so that at the name of Jesus

   every knee shall bow,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord.[6]

And this, Paul asserts, this confession of Jesus Christ as Lord is, “to the glory of God the Father”—that is, to the glory of the One God, beside Whom there is no other.

What then is all this to us? This bestowing of the Divine Name on Jesus, this declaration that the man from Galilee, is also, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God”—what does it mean? Well, many things no doubt, but certainly this: that even as we acknowledge the divine majesty that the heaven of heavens cannot contain, so we also believe that when we finally face that majesty we shall encounter a person: one who was willing to be tempted and tested at all points even as we are, though without sin, yet a friend of sinners, a healer of the sick, who finally cared for us so much that to be one with us he was willing to endure the death of the cross.

His is the Holy Name we now confess, as we proclaim our faith:

We believe in One God…





[1] If anyone is interested, see Jonathan Hope, Shakespeare Language: Reason, Eloquence and Artifice at the Renaissance (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2010) 1-39.

[2] “For the Israelites there is upon the whole no difference whatsoever between the idea, the name and the matter itself.” Again, “To know the name of a man is to know his essence. The pious ‘know the name ‘ of their God (Ps. 9,11; 91,14), i.e. they know how he is”(Johannes Pedersen, Israel, Aslaug Møller, transl., [2 vols.; London: Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1926], I-II.168, 245).

[3] The Jewish Bible has the name יהוה, generally transliterated into Latin characters as YHWH. Faithful orthodox Jews not will not presume to utter this Name.  Instead, they use some other expression such as  הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא (hakadosh baruch hu: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He”), or השם (HaShem: “The Name).

[4] W. C. van Unnik, “Die rechte Bedeutung des Wortes ‘treffen’: Lukas 2,19,” in Sparsa Collecta: The Collected Essays of W. C. van Unnik (3 vols.; NovTSup 29-31; Leiden: Brill, 1973-83), 1.72-91; see also Francois Bovon, Luke, Christine M. Thomas, transl. (3 vols.; Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002 [2002]), 1.92.

[5] I here reflect what is at present a minority view, although I believe it be correct. Among those holding it, however, see J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London: Methuen, 1898), 113-114; Marcus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians (Black’s New Testament Commentaries; London: A & C Black, 1998), 142-44; Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1999), 34, 53-54.

[6] I cite the Old Testament translating from the Greek (Septuagint) version that Saint Paul was undoubtedly using.

Christopher Bryan