I was born on St. Patrick’s Day. For that reason, my father wanted to name me Patrick. My mother insisted, however, that I be called Richard, after my father. (Technically, I got his middle name; he was “E. Richard” and I’m “Richard M.”)
Even so, as anyone who has lived in a house where two generations share a name knows, you have to navigate which one you are speaking to. In my case, I spent the first twelve years or so of my life as “little Richie” while my dad was “big Rich.” Eventually, I got to drop the “little” but long after that many family and friends who know me from childhood continue to call me Richie. When I am back in my hometown, as I was this past week, and walk into the Hawley Diner, I invariably run into people who have not seen me for years; they still call me “Richie.” Mostly I have given up trying to change that.
Shakespeare had Romeo say that “a rose is still a rose by any other name”—and I suppose it is. But names nevertheless do convey something, because they tell us who we are or at least who others think we are. I sometimes wonder how I would be different if I had been named Patrick rather than Richard. I know that it makes a difference how I respond if I am called “Richie” or “Rich” or “Father Rich” or “Richard.” Hathy and I had a landlord when we lived in New Britain, Connecticut who called us, for four years, “Dick and Hattie.” I realize that it makes a difference to some extent not only how I am, but even who I am—when I am called by these various names.
So today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. It is a day we don’t usually get to make a big deal of—the eighth day after Christmas—January 1—which only rarely falls on a Sunday. The name "Jesus" is a transliteration of the Greek Ἰησοῦς, which is itself a Hellenization of the Hebrew יְהוֹשֻׁעַ Yĕhōšuă‘ or Joshua. The name means: "YHWH delivers" or "YHWH rescues.”
The name Jesus appears to have been a fairly common name in Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. And it is, of course, an old Biblical name that goes all the way back to the end of the Exodus story—to the days when Yeshua fought the Battle of Jericho and the walls came tumblin’ down! In Luke 1:26-33, the angel, Gabriel, told Mary to name her child Jesus. And in Matthew 1:21, the angel told Joseph to name the child Jesus: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." That sort of takes the fun out of the back-and-forth most parents go through in considering names, but that is what the Bible says: Mary and Joseph didn’t have to fight over that one because they both got it on good authority that this would be the name!
In the same way that Christians are officially “named” at Baptism, so little Jewish boys are named at their bris. Luke tells us that “after eight days had passed it was time to circumcise the child…” So it is not only the name of Jesus that comes on this eighth day of Christmas; circumcision is a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Luke wants us to know that Jesus is a child of that covenant, a faithful Jew. Jesus is born into a tradition that goes back to Moses and the Exodus, to David and the psalms, to Jeremiah and the exile, to Isaiah and homecoming.
Jesus bears the name of God. His very name includes the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush: YHWH delivers. Obviously Jesus bears that holy name in a special way, but the point of circumcision, as with Holy Baptism, is that God's people also bear the name of God.
We have—each of us—been given names—formal names and nicknames and perhaps some names that only a few people are allowed to call us. We try to live up to our names as best we can and we try not to bring shame to our family names. But in addition to those given names and family names, there is a name that binds us all together into one great big extended-complicated-sometimes dysfunctional family—the Body of Christ. Through Holy Baptism we have been claimed and marked. We bear the Holy Name of Jesus, our Lord and our God and our Savior, the Name of the One who calls us his “friends.”