What do most people think of when they hear the words “January first?” I doubt that many remember this date as “The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.” In Southern California, we tend to think of an event named “the Tournament of Roses.” But eight days after Christmas Day the time span between our celebration of Christmas and our celebration of New Years Day, a very important event took place in the life of Jesus.
A name is something of great importance. It identifies a person and often gives information about the person’s family, values, and skills. I’m part of five generations named “Katherine.” Children are often enjoined to “protect” the family name by practicing “appropriate” behavior. (I have an uneven record.) Frequently the whole family, and sometimes the family’s friends, work hard choosing a baby’s name. Names often reflect an important value or a favorite relative.
Joseph and Mary were told what they were to name their child. This long expected child was born to be the Savior, Christ the Lord. His name was to reflect the fulfillment of the hopes of generation upon generation of people who had been praying for the coming of the Savior.
What added to the uniqueness of this birth was the way in which the news traveled. It was carried by angels and shepherds. A group of shepherds were out in the field, at night, watching their flocks, when suddenly an angel appeared and told the shepherds this longed-for birth had happened. After hearing the news, the shepherds left their flock and went to see if this news was really true. It was. And more.
The shepherds left the field, searched for the babe, and found the him, housed just as the angel had said. The small, gentle family the shepherds sought was housed in a stable-- a very humble place, even in that day and age. Bethlehem had run out of rooms at their inns for travelers who were there for the census.
Because of the angel song, the shepherds knew what they beheld when they reached the stable where the baby was born. It’s been observed that it’s appropriate that the first visitors to the newborn child are shepherds: Jesus is our shepherd and The Good Shepherd. Jesus as shepherd is a favorite name—we have several reminders of this name in our church.
Mary tried to understand (“pondered”) all that she experienced and was told, especially the great news told by the angels, but she did not immediately grasp the full significance of God’s action. She acted in faith and trust. Mary, believed the angel’s words that told of God’s purpose for her and the child. Mary trusted God’s plan for them. They had to go to Bethlehem to be counted by the census. Mary needed to rest and recover after the trip to Bethlehem and the birth of the baby.
Eight days later, the baby was circumcised and was given his name. This naming ritual was done according to custom and it was a necessary ritual of recognition. The name Jesus received was heavy with significance. It is the same as that of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who led Israel into the land of freedom. The name means literally “The Lord is salvation.” This is the name that Gabriel, at the Annunciation, told Mary to name her child. It is the name that Joseph is told to name the child by an angel who appeared to him in a dream.
It was not a name thought up by the baby’s parents. It was a name that came from God. The name of the Savior, the salvation he brings, and he himself all came from God.
Mary and Joseph used the name given by the angel. “Jesus” was one of the names of the long expected savior. Unless the Angel Gabriel spoke in Latin to the Virgin Mother, Gabriel , the angel, told Mary to name him “Yeshua,” or “Joshua.” (As an aside, isn’t it fun to live in a town with such an elegant history?) Other variations of the name given to Him, in Hebrew, means “The Lord Saves”, or “Jehovah Saves”, or “He Who saves the People”. The name, “Joshua,” and it’s Latin cousin “Jesus,” both point back to the saving acts of God in ages past AND point forward to the saving acts which will be in years to come.
According to Liggett, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus could be celebrated as a day to ponder the nature of our faith-family and our full adoption into the family of God. The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is truly important; and it belongs right next to Christmas. The point here is not that we’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was named “Jesus” instead of, say, “Floyd” or “George.” Instead, today we celebrate the fact that God has again spoken his name to his people – and not just as a word, but as the Word made flesh.
God has spoken his name to us as a person. Eight days after Christmas, God again gave us his name, this time with a force, a potency and a significance that overshadows Sinai, and for us, supersedes whatever Moses was told on the mountain.
For in speaking his name as “Jesus,” God has changed forever his relationship to us – from the studied formality of a name too holy to speak to the special intimacy that is implied by being on a first-name basis at its best – and more.
God has given us the fullness of what is only hinted at in our own names. We have been given the gift of a new relationship with God, a first-name relationship that is more intimate than casual, more immediate than informal.
There is much to celebrate in our new life on this New day. Amen.