Today being the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus has, naturally enough, got me thinking about names, and the significance of names. Today is the day commemorating Jesus’ bris, or circumcision, when he was given the name that the angelic messenger had given to both Mary and Joseph.
My own name, Susan, is common as dirt. When I was growing up there were at least thre of us in every classroom. My parents were really unimaginative when it came to naming me. And then when they got to my middle name, they basically crumbled completely. They started with “R,” and then…they just stopped. It doesn’t actually stand for anything. It’s just “R.” The story I heard was that they wanted to do something for my grandmother, but they didn’t like the name “Ruth” so they just went with R. That’s what I’ve heard, but both my parents denied it to my face.
So there’s been this game throughout my life, of trying to figure out what it should stand for. I voted for things like “Ravishing,” or “Refreshing.” A former boyfriend suggested “Relentless.” Yeah…a former boyfriend.
Nowadays, parents try to be creative & original with their children’s names, and sometimes this can go a little far. I feel for the elementary school teachers who have to call roll, and come to a name that’s basically an ampersand, or an asterisk, and they’re supposed to know that it’s actually pronounced “Gregoriana.” Parents today! Also, get off my lawn!
Now, Jesus’ name was also common as dirt. In that time and place you could hardly swing a cat without hitting a guy named Jesus/Yeshua. (Don’t swing cats! It’s a sin.) But—paradoxically—his name, while common, was also unique and profound, incredibly special, deeply meaningful. Because “Jesus” (Yeshua) comes from the verb “to rescue,” “to deliver.” In other words, his name says who he is: the Savior.
In the scriptures, names are important, and a change of name often signals a change to both a person’s identity and their call, their mission. Think of Abram and Sarai becoming Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob becoming Israel; Simon becomes Peter, and Saul becomes Paul. In our time, lots of people find the name they were given no longer speaks to who they are and where their path lies, so they have to find a new one. Just like the figures from Scripture, the original name wasn’t necessarily wrong, and maybe it was lovingly given. It’s just time to move on.
In the book of the prophet Hosea, God actually takes a new name. Israel, God’s bride, has been stepping out on him, and God’s heart is broken. (There’s a lot of “whoring” in Hosea.) But through the prophet, God promises a reconciliation:
Therefore I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her…On that day, says the Lord, you will call me “My husband,” and no longer will you call me “My Baal [Master].” And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:16, 19-20).
Incidentally, so much for the idea that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is this wrathful, mean judge and the God of the New Testament is all kindness and compassion!
Anyway, names matter in the Bible, and the name of Jesus matters—a lot. We Christians strive to do everything in the name of Jesus. Or in the name of the Trinity, which comes to the same thing, because the Trinity is undivided.
In Matthew’s account, when the angel gives Joseph the name “Jesus” in a dream, he also reminds Joseph of the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14) that the child born of the virgin will be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God is with us.” The most fantastic news ever, right? Imagine if God were not “with us.” What if God were “against us,” or just messing with us like the pagan gods, for the entertainment value? Or what if God were not malicious, but just “remote and uninterested in us”?
But that was never the way with Israel’s God. The Lord had always dwelt among the people, whether in a tabernacle carried through the wilderness, or in the Temple within the Holy of Holies, God was there. With the people.
But Jesus is called “Emmanuel”—this child being named is God with us. And that brings us to the beautiful hymn from Philippians. In the gospels we’ve learned Jesus’ identity—Savior—but it’s in Philippians that we learn something more of his mission and purpose, even of his style.
Jesus is “in the form of God,” but what does he do with that? I know what I’d do with that! I’d start rearranging things to suit my purposes, and get everyone to do my bidding. (Don’t pretend you wouldn’t.) Jesus, instead, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” or some translations say, “something to be grasped at.” No—he “emptied himself.” The Greek term for this self-emptying is kenosis, and that self-emptying suggests the kind of poverty of spirit that Jesus will later call “blessed.”
When we think about economic poverty, the opposite of that is obviously wealth, right? But with poverty of spirit—whether it’s mental or physical illness, a loveless marriage, stalling out in your career—the opposite of that kind of poverty is entitlement. In other words, it’s grasping—seizing what we want when we want it, because we believe we have a right to it.
This has gotten us in trouble from the very beginning: In the garden, Adam and Eve were given paradise, everything they could possibly desire. But there was one thing off-limits, and they came to feel entitled to that one thing. And grasped it.
Then Cain murders Abel because Cain feels entitled to the blessing God gave to Abel’s offering. Pretty soon people are building a tower that will “reach up to heaven” to, and I quote, “make a name for ourselves. Otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). What are they grasping at here? Both status and power, a kind of unity or solidarity that will make them powerful. It does not end well.
But when God came to be “with us” in Jesus, he utterly gave up those kinds of goals and rights, gave up all sense of entitlement, taking on the poverty of a slave. He humbled himself and was obedient like a slave, all the way down to death on the cross. He became a specific human, embracing all the limitations that involved. He came in a specific time and place, not as a generic “everyman” who could sort of hover above it all, looking human but not getting his hands dirty. He became a particular baby and received a particular Name.
After “he humbled himself,” the next thing we hear is “Therefore God also highly exalted him.” It’s always good to ask, “What’s the ‘therefore’ there for?” It’s here to say that the exaltation of Jesus’ Name is the direct product and result of his self-emptying.
“Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Well, so what? (It’s always good to ask that, too.) Great for Jesus, but what does this mean for us?
Everything! When Jesus was “born in human likeness,” and was “found in human form,” he became the master template of humanity. He became the rabbi of rabbis, and the job and goal of a rabbi’s student, called a talmid, was to imitate him, to become like him. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
So what does that mean for us? It means that our hope in sharing in the resurrection and glory of our teacher Jesus involves going through the process of kenosis ourselves, embracing our humanity right down to the depths of our poverty—whatever that looks like in each of our lives. It means that our suffering has meaning, purpose, value; it’s important, because just as Jesus embraced the whole experience of being human, we his students do the same.
How do we do this? What does it look like? There are lots of answers, but here’s one: When suffering comes my way, instead of feeling entitled to better—better treatment, more recognition, a better diagnosis—I turn to God and say, “Lord, I am feeling my poverty right now. And out of love for You, and for the poverty You embraced for my sake, I consent to it.” I’m not grasping at better, at what I feel I deserve but consenting to this part of the human experience, knowing it connects me to the rest of suffering humanity, and to Christ himself, whose experience of human poverty began with the cutting of his flesh, and the giving of a Name.
We can do this in hope, knowing that at the bottom of our poverty, however deep it goes, Jesus will meet us there. Because he’s gone there before us. And the One who bears the Name that is above all names has assured us that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 23:12). Right along with him. He is the template.
Do we trust that? Jesus is asking us to stake our lives on it—literally—to take our time, our energy, and all the resources we have and direct them to the goal of being poor in spirit, like him so that we can be exalted, with him. To embrace our humanity is to consent to our poverty, to reject the values of the world, which urge us to grasp at the so-called “good life.” Consenting, along with Jesus, to our humanity: that is what it means to celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus—not just with our lips, but in our lives. Otherwise, it’s just another New Year’s Day.