A reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah (61:10-62:3)
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
62 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
This year, during the season of Advent, and now in the season of Christmas, Monday Matters will focus on readings from the prophet Isaiah.
What’s in a name?
Isaiah spoke with deep joy about what had not yet happened. (See reading above, a reading which you may have heard in church yesterday on the first Sunday of the Christmas season.) Not a bad way to begin a new year. He says that righteousness and praise will spring up. He affirms impending vindication, visible for all the world to see. And then he says that his readers will be called by a new name, reflective of divinely given beauty.
The Bible is full of stories of people who get a new name to signify the transformation God brings to our lives. Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul.
One of my favorite name changes in the Bible comes from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. We read that a man named Joseph had his name changed to Barnabas. Barnabas means son of encouragement. The church found him to be such an encouraging presence that that they changed his name to reflect his gifts. Soon after that, he became traveling companion of St. Paul, who I suspect was not always easy to get along with. Barnabas was the guy for the job. Every time I read about his name change, I find myself wondering (with some nervousness) about how my community would change my name. What name would your community give you?
This business about getting a new name is really about stepping into a new identity, not destroying what we are or where we’ve been, but recognizing gifts and building on that, for the sake of the good news. The good news Isaiah anticipates is that God is preparing a new identity for God’s people. We can claim that possibility for ourselves. For those of us who are Jesus followers, in this ongoing Christmas season, that possibility has everything to do with Jesus showing up.
It’s not lost on me that while the reading from Isaiah turns up on the First Sunday of the Christmas season, today we also observe the Feast of the Holy Name, observed on January 1. Holy coincidence. (Happy new year, by the way. How are you doing on those resolutions?)
The Feast of the Holy Name is a day to celebrate the naming of the infant Jesus in the temple rituals of his culture. It’s worth noting what his name means. The name Jesus means God saves.
Throughout the New Testament, as early Christians took first steps as a movement, they were invited to call on the name of Jesus. In other words, they were making the claim, indeed betting their lives, on the promise that God would save. They were called to trust in the power of that name. We are still invited to call on that name, to claim that we are saved not by our good works or our good theology or our good liturgy or even our good taste. God is the one who saves. Jesus comes to make that happen. We are saved by the one whose name suggests grace.
To the extent that we can embrace that, our identity can be transformed. We might even come to feel that we have been given a new name, a new identity. And as we begin a new year, that gives cause to join with Isaiah in rejoicing and in hope. May this coming year be filled with the joy of experiencing God’s saving activity in your life.