What’s in a name?
Checked off the bucket list: New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It happened a number of years ago. I went with a group of friends to a Marx Brothers Film Festival then to Times Square to watch the ball drop. It was cold and crowded. I don’t need to do that again. Once was a gracious plenty.
But the turning of the year is always worth marking, with opportunity to reflect on the past year, with its joys and challenges, successes and failures, gratitudes and regrets. It’s also a chance to look forward and commit to hopes and intentions for days ahead.
Yesterday in church, we marked the new year by celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name, always on January 1. The collect for that day appears above. I’m told that the feast began as a way for Christians to mark the new year. The observance has Gallican origin. A church council in 567 set apart the day to counteract pagan festivities connected with the beginning of the new year, perhaps a sixth-century version of New Year’s Eve, sans Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen.
The church’s feast has as its focus the rituals associated with a newborn child, and specifically the name given that child. The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, the gospels and other writings in the New Testament all speak of the importance of name of the messiah. So as we begin 2023, we might ask: What’s in a name? Why do we repeatedly read that the name of Jesus matters?
The name literally means “God saves.” More competent scholars can talk about the importance of naming in the culture into which Jesus was born. I have been struck with what that name, “God saves” indicates. These two words say a lot.
For starters, the name says something about God. It says that God is graciously active in our world. While many of us may be locked in what has been called an “immanent frame” which regards divine intervention as a quaint and antiquated idea, the name of Jesus suggests that the transcendent power of God comes to us still and that it has salvific significance. As theologian Andrew Root puts it: God is the star of the story (not us, not the church.) As mystic Evelyn Underhill put it: God is the interesting thing about religion and people are hungry for God. Might we begin 2023 with an expectation that God, by grace, will act in our lives and in our broken world in a saving way? What if we lived our lives in the coming year in awareness that our lives unfold in the presence of the Holy One? What if we lived with daily expectation of holy activity, when sometimes some of us (yours truly included) live as functional atheists?
Second, the name of Jesus says something about us. I’ll put it this way: We need help. We need to be saved. We need a savior. Again, a culture celebrating self-sufficiency and independence may resist that notion. But the fact is when we claim the name of Jesus, we are admitting a need for a power greater than we can muster. Seen in this light, salvation is much more than just a ticket to heaven. I’ve been told that one way to understand the word salvation is to see it as suggesting healing and wholeness. Each one of us knows something of that kind of need, as I believe we each are familiar with some kind of brokenness. We experience it in body, mind, spirit, memory, relationships, not to mention our political and social contexts. Our faith tells us that those experiences need not be the last word about us. They need not define us. Help is on the way.
Finally, the name of Jesus says something about what we are called to do. As Ted Lasso tells us (Sidebar: When do we get the third season?), we are called to believe. We are called to trust that God is active and interested. More to the point, we are called to believe that God is love and that the Holy One’s intention toward us is loving, to place our confidence in that love.
So happy new year. You’re only 24 hours into 2023, still time to make a resolution or two. Maybe one of those might be a commitment to think about what the name of Jesus actually means in your life and mine.