Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Saving Name of Jesus

Sermon for the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ

It’s a ritual that all expecting parents go through: picking out a name for the coming child. There are lots of ways to choose names these days. You can go on-line and find lots of baby name websites that tell you the origins and meanings of hundreds of names. They’ll also give you a list of names that currently are the most popular. Or you can opt for the more traditional approach of naming children after living or deceased family members.

Today, we commemorate the naming of a baby boy. The Feast of the Holy Name honors the day nearly 2,000 years ago on which a baby Jewish boy was circumcised and given the name Jesus. In the book of Leviticus, the Law of Moses requires that every male child be circumcised on the eight day from birth (cf. Lev. 12:3). This was typically a festive occasion, with family and friends joining together to witness the naming of the baby.[1] And so, when it comes to the ritual that fulfils the Law, Jesus was no different than any other baby Jewish boy.

But, of course, as Christmas Day and the Christmas season remind us, Jesus was actually very different from all other baby boys. The “Prologue” to John’s Gospel reveals the sacred mystery we celebrate during this holy season: that in Jesus of Nazareth, humanity and divinity are wed into one Person. In Jesus, God “became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14 NRSV). And as a consequence of the Incarnation, the name Jesus becomes “the sign of our salvation” [Collect for “The Holy Name” in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 213].

The word Jesus comes from the Hebrew Jeshua, or Joshua, which means “Jehovah is salvation.”[2] This is why the 1st chapter in Matthew’s Gospel records the angel of the Lord telling Joseph that Mary “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21 NRSV). In Greek, the name Jesus is also connected to the verb “to heal.”[3] The name Jesus carries many meanings, including Savior, Redeemer, and Healer. And as the Gospels show us, those meanings get carried out in concrete words and deeds in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. And so on the Feast of the Holy Name, we join with Christians from the earliest days of the Church to the present in honoring the Name of Jesus.

We honor and venerate the Name of Jesus, not because there’s some hidden power in the letters that comprise it. We honor and venerate the Name of Jesus because, when we say that name, and when we bring that name into our minds and treasure it in our hearts, we are invoking the reality, and the power, and the mystery of the Incarnate and Risen Lord. Spoken or prayed with reverence, the Name of Jesus expresses our faith that Jesus was not merely a divine being who appeared human, or an ordinary human being who merely claimed to be divine. Jesus was a flesh and blood man who was also the divine Son of God.

The Name of Jesus taps into the mystery of the Incarnation, a mystery captured in the words of a great Christian hymn: “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss, to lay aside his crown for my soul” (Hymnal # 439). To think that God could love the world so much that He would voluntarily give up everything associated with being God – including power and the right to mete out just desserts for sin … That God would voluntarily assume the fullness of our humanity, sharing in everything it means to be human, including fatigue, pain, loneliness, fear, and death, yet excluding sin …[4] And that God would do all of this to heal us from sin and to deliver us from death in spite of the fact that we have never done anything to merit such grace … All of this, and more, is what the Name of Jesus signifies. So it’s little wonder that the Name of Jesus plays such a central role in historic Christian faith and practice.

We see it in the New Testament. As when Peter boldly proclaims before hostile Jewish authorities that “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” than that of Jesus (Acts 4:12 NRSV). Or when John tells us that he wrote his Gospel “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31 NRSV).

We find the Name of Jesus front and center in the Eastern Orthodox tradition with its emphasis on the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Concerning the power of Jesus’ name as invoked in this prayer, one of the Eastern saints says:

“It is a prayer and a vow and a confession of faith, conferring upon us the Holy Spirit and divine gifts, cleansing the heart, driving out demons. It is the indwelling presence of Jesus Christ within us, and a fountain of spiritual reflections and divine thoughts. It is remission of sins, healing of soul and body, and shining of divine illumination; it is a well of God’s mercy bestowing upon the humble revelations and initiation into the mysteries of God. It is our only salvation, for it contains within itself the saving Name of our God, the only Name upon which we call, the Name of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”[5]

We also see the central role of the Name of Jesus in the Western Catholic tradition in which devotion to the Holy Name through the reverent invocation of Jesus is believed to provide “help in bodily needs,” to give “consolation in spiritual trials,” to “protect us against Satan and his wiles,” and to serve as a fount for “every blessing and grace for time and eternity.”[6]

One bishop sums it up by saying that “the power of God is present in the Name of Jesus.”[7] We should thus be very mindful of how we use and invoke the Holy Name of Jesus, lest, by taking the Name of the Lord our God in vain, we misuse its power to the peril of our souls. We should invoke the name of Jesus, not lightly or frivolously, but reverently and prayerfully. We should invoke the Name of Jesus regularly and repeatedly, allowing it to bring us into deeper intimacy with the One who shared our humanity that we may partake of His divinity. For in the Holy Name of Jesus we find all of the treasures and the mysteries of our salvation and of God’s extravagant, costly love for the whole world.

[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1998), p. 114.

[2] “Origin of the Name of Jesus Christ,” by A. J. Maas, at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08374x.htm, accessed on January 1, 2008.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way Revised Edition (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), p. 75.

[5] St. Simeon of Thessalonica, quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, translated by E. Kadloubovsky & E. M. Palmer, and edited by Timothy Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 88-89.

[6] See “Holy Name of Jesus” by Frederick G. Holweck at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07421a.htm, and also “Devotion to the Holy Name” at http://fisheaters.com//holyname.html, both accessed on January 1, 2008.

[7] Bishop Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Church, quoted at http://www.tlig.org/rosaryorth.html, accessed on January 1, 2008.

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