Sunday, January 01, 2006

What's In a Name?

I was once part of an online discussion whose participants included a rather excitable individual with an urgent need to communicate his concerns about Satan. He was so fired up (so to speak) about the devil that, after awhile, instead of typing "Satan" he'd type "Stan"...over and over again.

It was interesting to me how Satan's transformation into Stan, in the context of this extended conversation, robbed Satan of the power to evoke the expected emotional reaction to his name. You just can't get too exercised over hearing, for example, that Stan wants you to neglect your devotional life or stop reading your Bible or sleep in on Sunday morning. Oh, yeah? Stan wants that? Well, tell Stan to go...

What's in a name, anyway?

Today's Gospel lesson pairs a very unusual event -- strange shepherds showing up at Bethlehem to visit the infant Jesus and share their amazing, numinous experience with his wondering parents -- with a very commonplace event, in a Jewish family: Eight days after Jesus' birth, he was circumcised according to the Law, and given a name. He was named Joshua, after the great hero: "God saves." It wasn't a particularly unusual name; probably when the neighborhood kids in Nazareth were out playing and a mother's voice suddenly rang out, "Joshua!" many little heads turned in that direction.

It seems curious, at first, to consider that the Church has a special observance dedicated to the naming of Jesus.

But maybe not.

How do you pronounce the name of God? How do you spell it? If you are a pious Jew, this is a ridiculous question: You don't. God is so great, so glorious, so righteous, so other, that to presume to speak God's name or write it down, no matter how well intentioned, constitutes blasphemy; a misappropriation of the power of The Name by mere mortals.

In our studiously casual and irreverent age, we sometimes forget what it means to revere the name of the Divine. Many pious contemporary Christians become agitated at the sight of "X-mas," for instance, when the abbreviation actually originated as a sign of respect for Christ's name. But even now there are times when, while reading Scripture, even we may feel our hair stand on end: The beginning of John's Gospel, where we read about the Word of God, who is life, and the light of all people, through whom all things came into being; the hymn to Christ in the letter to the Colossians, describing him as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and earth were created...all things have been created through him and for him"; the Alpha and Omega of Revelation.

How can we possibly get our heads around the concept of this Cosmic Christ, let alone the entire Godhead?

We can't. Which may be why, once upon a time, God came to us in the person of one new baby named Joshua. Nothing regal or otherwise special in that name, other than the perennial hope that God's saving power might reach out to God's people.

And, more than this, Joshua -- one of countless Joshuas before and since -- was known as Joshua, son of Mary. In a patriarchal, honor/shame culture, being known by one's mother's name instead of one's father's was a wagging-fingered, shaming assessment by the community that one's paternity was in question. So not only did the Word become one of us, but he became one of the least of us; an object of derision and dismissal in a community heavily invested in its "family values."

What's in a name? In the name of Jesus we find a continuum of human experience -- everything from heroism to humiliation to hope. And a God with a name too holy to be spoken who is willing to take on that name, with all the human story that goes with it, so that it all may become "the name that is above every name."

The Circumcision of Jesus, Ottoviano Nelli Posted by Picasa

1 comment:

Tom in Ontario said...

It seems we were thinking some of the same things or reading some of the same things. Here's my sermon from yesterday.