What’s in a name?
January 1, 2017, Holy Name:
Numbers 6:22-27; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet;” (Romeo & Juliet II.ii.43-44)
Which might be true. A pen might also be called a “Frindle,” and still write a sonnet. But it’s also true, as Gertrude Stein famously said, that “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” and not an onion, despite Hemingway’s glib retort.
When Juliet asks “What’s in a name?” she isn’t thinking about this philosophically. She’s wondering why the beauty she’d met at the dance has to belong to a rival family; but would Romeo still be Romeo if his surname wasn’t Montague? It’s doubtful, because being named something other than Montague would mean he grew up in a different family, with a completely different set of life experiences. Just as a rose bush split and raised in two different soils, in two different climates won’t produce exactly the same roses. Names are more than just functional handles for various objects.
Names are microcosms of an entire universe. Names reveal history, culture, sociology…knowing that “John Smith” was actually named after his grandfather whose birth name was Johann Schmidt brings a great deal of history and nuance…a whole world might be viewed from another perspective through a different name. Names are powerful.
In folktales names are often associated with power…either the power to control people, or the ability to free yourself from their thrall (remember the tale of Rumpelstiltskin). In Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful movie, Spirited Away, the witch Yubaba enslaves people by stealing their names. As we know, a similar process was used by actual slavers…African and Native American names were stolen and replaced with slave names and English or Spanish surnames erasing one history and replacing it with another.
Names are powerful, and the ability to name is powerful, in fact, it is close to divine.
God creates by naming: “God said, Let there be light…and [then] called the light ‘day’, and the darkness ‘night’.” God names earth, and sky and sea, but naming all that is on the earth, and in the sea and the skies, God gives that power to the human. “And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that would be its name.” (Genesis 2: 19). It’s in this context that “Adam” is first used as a name for a specific human—that he is first “named”. Adam is really a Hebrew pun; “Adam” comes from “Adamah.” which is a word that means “earth” or “ground.” Adam is literally “from Adamah—from the ground,” so Adam really means, “groundling, or earthling,” something like that.
In scripture it’s always good to check and see what names really mean, what they refer to, because that often provides even more depth and meaning. The figure we call “Eve” in English, or “Ava”…in Hebrew “hawwah,” also derives from words that mean “to breathe” and “to live.” So just as God forms out of the earth and breathes life into Adam, so earth (Adam) and breath (Eve) will become the parents of all living humans.
God renames Abram, (which means “father”) to Abraham, which means “father of multitudes.” Jacob, “the supplanter” is renamed Israel, after wrestling all night with the divine being. We’re told in Genesis 32 that Israel means “strives with God,” but scholars say it might mean something closer to “God rules.” (Jewish Study Bible, 63).
And then there’s Jesus, at “whose name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess him now.” Only, Jesus isn’t exactly the name he was given on that 8th day after his birth when his parents took him to be circumcised and named as was the custom. Jesus is the English version of what the Gospel writers put in Greek. They said his parents named him Ιησους (Iesous). But Iesous is just the way the Greeks wrote the Hebrew name Yeshu’a or Yehoshu’a which we know in English in another form…Joshua. When Mary and Joseph (or Miriam and Yosef) named their little boy, they probably named him Yeshu’a ben Yoseph or Joshua son of Joseph.
Now why would the angel tell Mary and Joseph to name their son Joshua? Well, remember the other biblical Joshua and what he did? He was the one who became the leader of the Israelites after the death of Moses. Just as this infant Jesus is to become the leader of all of us who continually wander in the wilderness. It is Joshua, not Moses, who actually leads the Israelites into the promised land, just as Jesus is the one to lead us into the promise of God’s realm of justice and peace. And most significantly, Joshua…Yehoshu’a/Yeshu’a means “God saves.” That’s what we’re proclaiming by celebrating the feast of the Holy Name. Not just a remembrance of a long ago ritual, but the ongoing reality of God’s saving grace in our lives. The reality that God saves and God is with us—Emmanuel, the other name he is given by the prophet Isaiah (whose name also means “YHWH is salvation”).
God’s salvation is bound up in the life and death of Jesus—Yeshu’a—and Yeshu’a/Jesus reveals the totality of God’s salvation.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot.
William Porcher DuBose, professor of moral philosophy at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee back in the 19th century, wrote: “Jesus Christ is to me, not a name, nor a memory, or tradition, nor an idea or sentiment, nor a personification, but a living and personal reality, presence, and power. He is God for me, to me, in me, and myself in God. Wherein else do we see God, know God, poses God than as we are in Him, and he in us? … Where does God become knowable but in His Word to us and His Spirit in us and that is what we mean by Jesus Christ, and what He is, to and in us.” (Love’s Redeeming Work, p. 493).
Not a name, or a memory, or a tradition, but a living, personal reality. That is what we proclaim by celebrating the Holy Name…the truth and the reality that it is God saves and nothing and no one else…that God’s love and mercy and power are greater than any of the problems we face…that God is with us…always…that God is known and active through the life and ministry of Jesus/Yeshu’a and continues to be active and known and shared and experienced through the body of Christ today and in all the days to come.
“Name him, Christians, name him, with love as strong as death…In your hearts enthrone him…and let his will enfold you in its light and power.” (At the Name of Jesus, Caroline Maria Noel)