The Act of Naming

The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s, Little Rock
January 1, 2012
Luke 2: 15-21

How do you name the Son of God? This is the daunting task that Mary and Joseph are faced with 8 days after the birth of their child. They must give a name to the Son of God. Perhaps like any parents we might imagine they are beset with the typical challenges: Do they use a family name? Will the other children tease him for his name? Can mother and father agree on a name they both like? But unlike other parents, Mary and Joseph must name the divine – the Son of God – God incarnate. For faithful Jews, this is a serious task.

It’s a serious task because in the long story of the covenant people, names hold significant meaning. Names reveal character, and foreshadow an individual’s purpose. So Abram’s name was changed from “a high father” to Abraham, “the father of a multitude.” Isaac was named “he laughs” because his mother laughed. Isaac’s son Jacob was a “supplanter” or “deceiver”, which was a fitting name until he wrestled with God and was renamed “Israel” – “prince with God.” The list goes on. later we get Joshua – “God Saves”, and David – “hero”. For their new baby, Joseph and Mary need a name with such significance that it can encompass the character and purpose of God.

As if that weren’t serious enough, the task set before Mary and Joseph is even more daunting for the sheer power of names. This is lost a bit on our contemporary American culture – we generally give and share our names freely. But in the ancient world, knowing a person’s name meant that you were inextricably connected – you hold a kind of power over someone when you know their name. We can think of it as something like knowing someone’s social security number. Names were such significant keys to identity that they were often protected – most especially, God’s Name.

According to Hebrew tradition the name of God cannot – should not – be known. God is too great to be tethered by a name. So, when God self-identifies to Moses, God claims a name meaning something like, “I am”. In the Hebrew scriptures this “name” is written down using an abbreviation – Yahweh – but it is never pronounced, the covenant people preferring instead to replace the name with the title, LORD.

The power of God’s name is reflected in the reading from Numbers today: “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.” This familiar blessing is followed directly by a line that is often overlooked – “so they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” God’s name – mysterious as it is – will be a powerful blessing to the covenant people. All the way down to Mary and Joseph.

And this is the task given to a young woman and a hard-working carpenter: they are to look into the eyes of this infant child – the Son of God, the Great I AM, and give him a name.

It is a job that, from the very beginning, God has given to human beings. God created the world – the land, the sea, the sky, the plants and animals, and last of all human beings. But God did not name any of it; instead, saving that privilege for Adam. It will be the same with the holy child – it will be the privilege of humanity to name the divine.

Fortunately, Joseph and Mary had something better than a baby name book to help them with their task. The angel of God had made a suggestion: “You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” So, this child – the child about whom the prophet Isaiah had foretold would be called ‘wonderful, counselor, Almighty God,” – will be called Jesus, the most common, ordinary name a Jewish boy could hope to have.

That’s right. Among first-century Jews, Jesus was quite the popular name. It was a form of the name Joshua, meaning “God saves.” Under the oppressive rule of the Romans, Jewish parents held out this hope as they named their sons after the ancient hero who brought their ancestors into the Promised Land. So, Jesus, our Jesus – the one who would be the salvation of the world, would at first not stand out among other kids. He would have a Jewish name, a Jewish circumcision – an ordinary family.

The holy has entered into the ordinary – and nothing will ever again be ordinary.

You see, the incarnation and the giving of a name to God in human form, changes the world in two important ways. First of all, beginning with the naming of Jesus, human beings can call God by a personal name. God is still great – transcendent, above us and beyond us, and cannot be contained by our restrictive imaginations. And yet, God is also right here among us, and through Jesus, we know God intimately. Through Jesus, God has experienced human pain and suffering. Through Jesus, God has lived as a member of a family and a community. He has touched the sick, and dined with friends and sinners. Even thousands of years later, we are members of that community. We have been touched by him; we have dined with him. We know God by name.

And, we can name God. That is, the second significance of the incarnation is that, if we believe that God can take on ordinary flesh, then doesn’t it follow that God would be present in the world around us? The incarnation ought to change the way we see the world, and so doesn’t it then become the task of people of faith to name the divine – the holy – wherever we discover it? It seems to me that this is the serious task that we now share with Mary and Joseph. No one human being can be God so fully as Jesus Christ, and yet God is fully present in every person we meet. What might happen if we reverently and deliberately named that divine presence in the people and in the world around us, and treated it accordingly? What would happen if we looked into the face of our enemy, and said, “God is with you?” How might the world change if we named the presence of God in the ghetto – the one in our own city, or the ones across the world? Wouldn’t the world be different if we simply drove our cars with the recognition that we are sharing the road with people for whom God has a purpose? This act of naming is the serious – and most powerful – task that God gives to human beings. God creates, and it remains our privilege to do the naming. In this New Year, I pray that we may all witness and experience the divine in our lives, and give it a name so that all may know it – the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.