The Rev. Scott Trotter
Jan. 1, 2012
Holy Name Day
Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21
Today is a rather unusual Sunday. As you know the lessons, and therefore the theme for any given Sunday is set by the Church calendar and the lessons appointed for the day. The Calendar sets aside: Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity as special Sundays, and every Sunday as a Feast Day of our Lord, therefore a priority, except for 6 days; three you likely know: All Saint’s, Christmas and Epiphany; and three you likely don’t know: Transfiguration, Presentation and Holy Name, which have priority over any given Sunday’s focus. Today, as is every January 1, is Holy Name Day, and it falls on a Sunday only every 7 or so years.
The day is set aside to memorialize when Mary and Joseph, following Jewish tradition name, and circumcise, their child. Naming a child is typically a mother’s responsibility. If you’ve named a child, you know the range of emotions, values, and family issues that can be involve. For instance, when my youngest brother and wife were choosing a name for their first son they wanted to honor great grandfathers so chose Robert Adam Trotter. My brother said nope ~ that will become ‘RAT’ so they named him Adam Robert. (By the way, he was right.) In biblical times, naming is rooted in the understanding that a name expresses the essence of a person. For instance Jesus in Hebrew is Joshua, means savior.
To know someone’s name is to know who they are, their personality, their nature etc.
Knowing a name implies a relationship, which may be used for good or to do harm.
In scripture, when a person’s name changes Abram to Abraham, Sari to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, or Simon to Peter, it indicates a momentous change in that person’s relationship with God. The act of naming infers power over, thus Pharaoh renames Joseph ~ Zaphnathpaaneah. A more recent example of this comes from Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, who renames himself, and who is made more terrifying by the maxim that he is only referred to as he who must not be named, an attempt to keep all the power on his side of the ledger. So, even though Luke devotes all of one verse to it, this is an important moment in the gospel story. To begin with, Joseph and Mary are obedient to God; remember when Gabriel tells Mary about God’s plan for her to bear a son, she is told to name him ‘Jesus’. In Matthew’s version the angel instructs Joseph to name the child ‘Jesus’. Either way, they are obedient to God’s word. Knowing Jesus – Joshua – means savior – or God delivers reveals to the reader who the child is. Further knowing that naming gives power over, in both Luke and Matthew it is God who names Jesus, therefore the relationship and power dynamics are primarily between God and Jesus. It is also a clue to Mary’s and Joseph’s righteousness that they follow established law.
The power and importance of ‘name’ is revealed in the passage from Numbers.
You are familiar with verses 24-26 as blessing. The last verse:
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
reveals that blessings may be pronounced by priest; but that it is God who does the work of blessing. Moreover it reveals a connection between God’s name and God’s blessing. The significance of all this may be affirmed in that the earliest known fragments of any biblical text, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by 400 years, are these verses. [i] The verses we heard from Galatians are a reference to naming. Paul writes:
so that we might receive adoption as children … and if a child then also an heir.
A significant aspect of adoption is renaming the person, generally, but not always, a child. In receiving the last name of the new family, the adoptee becomes a part of the family. Paul is saying Jesus came so that you might be adopted, become children of God, and therefore heirs. It’s a source, the source, for hope.
Names and naming are clearly an important aspect of relationships: the relationship between ourselves and God, and relationships between people. It’s significance goes beyond proper names, it extends to all the names by which we refer to others. For instance, there are ethicist who contend that one reason the Nazis were able to persecute Jews so easily is that they renamed them. They set them off from all others, in part by requiring them to wear the yellow stars, thus making them less human, less than human, and thereby more easily persecuted, oppressed, and executed. In the United States we have our own dark history with dehumanizing names. To this day use of the ‘N’ word is offensive, and carries dehumanizing implications. Other words also do such harm. Last week the NY Times published an article about the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversing itself in a ruling concerning the word, the ‘boy’. [ii] Last year a three judge panel, in 2 -1 decision, ruled there were no racial over tones to a supervisor referring to black employees as ‘boy’. Retired justice W.U. Clemon, the first black federal judge in Alabama, and several other civil rights leaders filed a brief urging the court to reconsider. The brief states:
“Boy,” … is either a proxy for or “at the very least a close cousin” of the most charged racial epithet.
On December 16th, in a very rare occurrence, the court with a 3-0 decision reversed its prior decision. I believe this ruling is an authoritative indicator of the power of names, and the care we should use. Such care extends to not only black-white relationships, but includes Hispanics, Native Americans, Muslims, aliens and illegal aliens, red necks, skin heads, and all the ways we officially, or unofficially, divide, or otherwise identify, ourselves and others. This, by the way, includes sexual orientation, and in today’s economically charged times includes names like: poor, unemployed, rich the 1%, and the 99%.
In Ephesians Paul writes:
1:20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
As professing, as baptized Christians, we are called, we are obligated to place Jesus’ names above all others. In part this means placing the manner of Jesus’ relationship with all humanity above any other way we may identify ourselves, especially others. In short, we are called to name each other sisters and brothers in Christ. There is no other faithful name by which we can refer to another.
On this Holy Name Day, we remember that Jesus, via words spoken by Mary and Joseph is named and thus forever known as savior. Let us repent of our behavior that names others as less than children of God, and dedicate ourselves to naming, calling, speaking to or about everyone, as child of God. Beginning this New Year, let every name we speak be a holy name.