Lessons for the Feast of the Holy Name, Year C: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; and, Luke 2:15-21.
When we think of January 1st, the holiday that usually comes to mind is, of course, New Year’s Day. But the first day of January as the day beginning the new year has a convoluted history. It all began way back in 153 BCE when the Romans moved the date of the new year’s beginning to coincide with the day when the newly elected consuls began their one-year terms of office. In 567 CE, at the Council of Tours, the Christian Church decided to divorce the civil holiday from its roots in the Roman Empire and abolished the date of January 1st as the start of the new year. However, they failed to definitively establish a new date so at various times and places throughout medieval Europe the start of the new year was on March 25th (Feast of the Annunciation), Easter Sunday, or Christmas Day. With the reforms of the calendar under Pope Gregory in 1582, Catholic Europe restored the first day of January as the civil new year. Protestant Europe, however, was slower to accept the reforms given by the “papists in Rome” so it wasn’t until 1752 that the British accepted the restored date.
But New Year’s Day is a civil holiday, the Church having a different celebration and remembrance altogether. However, looking at the Christian calendar creates an equally muddy situation. Roman Catholicism celebrates (since the 1969 liturgical reforms) the Solemnity of Mary, mother of God, honoring the blessed virgin under the aspect of her motherhood of Jesus. This is an apt honoring the week after the Nativity. The Orthodox churches as well as most of the Anglican Communion observe what is called the Remembrance of the Circumcision – the octave day of Christmas, the eighth day on which the child Jesus was circumcised. In the Episcopal Church, we recognize this day as the Feast of the Holy Name, one of the seven principal feasts of the Church year. Though in reality, we observe also the remembrance of the circumcision as well, recalling Luke 2:21:
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.Luke 2:21
There was some significance to be found in the ceremony by which every Jewish male was formally given his name eight days after he was born is a bit trickier than putting up the new calendar. It’s tempting to see the whole thing as just odd; and to ask, with Romeo, “What’s in a name?” The answer, as Romeo himself found out none too happily, is that there’s a great deal in a name and that names are pretty special things.
This may be easier to get at when we start with ourselves and our own names, and the names of people around us. After all, we not only have a name, we have quite a few of them: We have first names, and middle names, and last names and titles; many of us have married names, maiden names, nicknames, pet names, and those other names we would rather forget. And which of those names we use and the way they are used says a lot.
The Name of God in Israel
The recognition of the holiness of God’s name is nothing new to Christianity. The Israelites were told the name of their God, a very specific name revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. The readings from both Numbers and the Psalm today use this name, spelled with the tetragrammaton (or four-letters) YHWH. In our bibles, the tetragrammaton is translated as the Lord, usually in all capital letters to distinguish it from another Hebrew word, Adonai which means “Lord.” YHWH, however, doesn’t mean “Lord.” Indeed, the definition of the name is ambiguous. Whether it is infinitive or participle, nominal or verbal, the word imparts some aspect of “to be.” When the name is given in Exodus 3, the narrative flow of the story is designed to communicate the new revelation of God (i.e. what is in the divine name) and to link that name with the history of the patriarchs. In other words, what came to pass in the revelation of God’s name was certainly of incalculable importance but it was not the beginning of God’s self-revelation.
According to the ancient ideas, a name was not just “noise and smoke” (cf. Exaodus 3:14); but, instead, a name indicated a close and essential relationship between the name and the bearer of the name. God’s name was God’s being itself. “I am what I am being” or “I will be what I will be” lie at the heart of the meaning of the tetragrammaton, with God reserving the freedom to be God. But God also gives the name away to Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai. Thus God gives God’s self, committed in trust to Israel. In it and in it alone lay the guarantee of God’s nearness and readiness to help. The name spoke directly of God’s holiness and righteousness shared and covenanted with Israel:
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.Numbers 6:27
Jumping ahead to the 6th century, Israel is brought into captivity by the Babylonians. Well after today’s readings from Numbers and the Psalms were written, the divine name (the tetragrammaton, the name given to Moses) had ceased to be spoken. The name of God was not spoken to keep it from being profaned. The name of God now belonged only to the cult. Just as God was once understood as wondering with his people but was now contained in the Temple, so too the name of God once belonged to the people but was now just in the realm of cult and mystery. And this says something very important about how Israel would come to understand God and their relationship to God. God was no longer the God who wandered in the garden or who visited Abraham. God was now a bit distant, apart from his people.
In other words, Israel was no longer on a first-name basis with God; and this lack of the use of God’s name was both a way of expressing and of constituting this new, and more distant, relationship, and of removing from Israel an important key to God’s immediate presence.
Feast of the Holy Name
This is why the Feast of the Holy Name is truly important; and why it belongs right next to Christmas. God has again spoken his name to us as a person. Eight days after Christmas, God again gave to the people a name by which we can know him. And this time it was with a force, a potency, and a significance that overshadows Sinai. In speaking the name Jesus, God has changed forever the divine relationship with creation, creating a special intimacy, giving us salvation (Yeshua – Jesus) itself.
It’s not that the name “Jesus” is some sort of magic talisman that we can wave around and make things happen. That’s superstitious mumbo-jumbo. But 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 relationship of redemption and release.
And with at comes an invitation; an invitation to intimacy with God – to intimacy with all of the power, the love, and the inherent connection to all of creation. I said “hinted at” in our own names because we have been given names – not Robert or Nancy or John – but a new name in our baptism. While those names that are parents gave us are important, God gave us new names in baptism that indicate what our relationship with God and each other should be. You see, in our baptism we are called, “Children of God.”
So maybe we can make two resolutions in this new year: First, live into your names. Live as children of God. I don’t know entirely what that might look like for each one of you but I do know that we all live into our names as children of God then this world will be a much better place and this church will be a much stronger witness. Second, share your name with someone this year. My mom used to make the same resolution each year: Make a new friend. That’s quite a challenge. Perhaps we can resolve to share our name, to share ourselves with someone new this year. Blessed be the name of the Lord.