Happy New Year! Blessed Christmastide – we are amidst the twelve days of Christmas. Christmas is too great a mystery to be contained in one day, so we celebrate the gift of God-come-near as a babe in Bethlehem for twelve whole days. Just wait until we get to Easter – an even greater mystery. We get ready for it in a longer season of time – in Lent – and we live in the Easter mystery for even more days – from Easter Sunday through to Pentecost.
It's appropriate today, though, to still marvel at the incarnation – God dwelling among us. We think of the babe in a manger and are in awe that God sees fit to be with us as one of us. God is present in and as the person of Jesus, not to judge us or to tell us how bad we are. Rather, God takes on our form – a high compliment to us – to remind us how good we are. And God can be like us so that we can be like God. We are, in our best moments, imitating the One who is interested in blessing, and making us new and whole.
No doubt your Christmas customs, like my own,attempt to capture the glory and wonder of God’s great movement in Christ’s birth – Emmanuel, God with us. You likely have expended your energy through this season’s festivities, gathering with family and friends and merry making. By the time many of us get to today, to January 1st, we are worn and wearied, or at the very least tired from a late night greeting the new year. And many of us today will begin in earnest to honor New Year’s resolutions, to try to be better versions of ourselves.
Today in the church’s tradition we also celebrate the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke, in the context of the nativity and the shepherds’ visitation, recounts that “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.”
He was called Jesus. In our Greek New Testament, Ieusus. The Hebrew – Jehoshua or Jeshua – meaning Yahweh saves. Recall that the angel had said to Joseph of his virgin fiancé and her child, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Jesus’ name accords with Jesus’ purpose. Jesus will bring forth salvation for God’s people.
In the name of Jesus – the name that is above every name, Scripture tells us – so much good has happened: healing and blessing and transformation of people and of peoples, of communities. And, in the name of Jesus, so many terrible things have been done: judgment and persecution and war and injustice.
My Bishop, Rob Wright, in tribute to the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, said that for Tutu, “Jesus was his center, not his border.” Isn’t that how it should be for all of us? Jesus at our core. Jesus at the center of our being, motivating our cry for justice, our call to mercy, our work, which for Tutu was toward the end of apartheid. The name of Jesus shouldn’t be a border, a boundary, a line in the sand. The name of Jesus is not meant to divide and to delineate, but to welcome and to enfold.
In the name of Jesus, for instance, my church is hosting a food pantry. In the name of Jesus, my diocese here in Atlanta is pursuing racial healing. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if we could all say, in the name of Jesus, I am figuring out how to love my enemy? Or in the name of Jesus, my neighbor is dialoging with me across difference. In the name of Jesus, my nation is pursuing peace.
The Holy Name of Jesus was assigned before Jesus’ birth. But the Gospel points out, Jesus is not named until eight days after his birth when it was time for him to be circumcised. The Jewish custom of naming in accord with circumcision is practical and religious. Practically, at a time when infant and maternal mortality was very high, it made sense to delay naming, to be sure that the child would live.
Religiously, naming is tied to the covenantal relationship we enjoy with God. Remember Abram was renamed Abraham when God entered a covenantal relationship with him. The bestowing of a name in conjunction with the establishing of a covenant was, and can be for us, a sign of the new thing God is doing in and through us. We are changed by our covenantal relationship with God.
Here at the beginning of a new year, many of us might benefit from a new name. A new name can help us redefine who we are or hope to be. Though my name is Monica – which I’ve always been told means “wise one” – I envy my daughter’s middle name – Joyous – because that is an identity I would like to ty on in this new year: one who is full of joy.
To give you an example of “new names” you might imagine for yourself, I want to share the words of a song I sang in my youth, entitled I Will Change Your Name. The lyrics are meant to be the words of the Lord, speaking to us.
I will change your name,
You shall no longer be called Wounded, Outcast, Lonely or Afraid.
I will change your name.
Your new name shall be Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One.
Faithfulness, Friend of God, One who seeks My face.
Biblical name changes remind us that the Lord would sometimes discern that people do need a name change – and with it, the opportunity afforded to live into a new identity. Sarai becomes Sarah at the Annunciation, when she is called upon to bear God’s covenantal people in her old age. Jacob becomes Israel after wrestling with God and being transformed. Simon takes on the new name Peter when he’s commissioned to be the rock upon which the Church is built.
In our reading from Numbers, we hear a beautiful blessing that Moses is supposed to instruct Aaron the priest, and his sons, to pass along to the people. The context is in a section of Numbers describing how the Hebrew people should prepare to leave Mt. Sinai and continue their journey through the wilderness to the promised land. The blessing is to be repeated throughout what becomes a very difficult and incredibly long journey. The blessing is beautiful poetry, but it is both preceded and followed by more basic specifications about consecration. Some scholars would say this is by design, and that the blessing itself is meant to be a sort of pronouncement of consecration, reminding people they are set apart and made holy.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
It’s a remarkable blessing. The Lord – Yahweh – is active in blessing and keeping and being gracious and giving peace – giving shalom. The you of “the Lord bless you and keep you” is singular. It’s as if every one of the Hebrew people – and every one of us now – should hear the personal and intimate nature of this blessing. The Lord be gracious to you, and give you peace.
But did you also hear the conclusion of this beautiful blessing? “So, they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” God puts the Lord’s name on the Israelites, on God’s people. God puts God’s name on us. God has already imprinted God’s image on us. We also receive God’s name. We can wear this name and let it define us. We can wear this name and let others see.
Though our language is often inadequate for God and for our relationship with God, I can imagine a few words or phrases we might claim as our “new name,” as people who are blessed by God and receive God’s name: Beloved, Child of God, Redeemed, One-who-seeks-God’s-face, Blessed. I imagine you are thinking of many more synonyms, and I hope the Holy Spirit might be whispering the word or words that are yours to claim and to live into with hope in this new year.
What is God’s name for you? Some of us so long have carried the burden of names like Not-good-enough, Lost, Complicated One, Alone. Hear me, hear the Scriptures, God is in the business of changing names. The Lord is giving you a new name. God has a name for you. Claim it.
And may the Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.