By H. Boone Porter

When we hear of a baby being born, our first questions are usually whether it is a girl or boy, and what its name is to be. So it is, after celebrating our Lord’s birth, we soon honor his Holy Name, the name Jesus, conferred on him, according to Jewish practice, a week after birth at his circumcision.

This turns out to be appropriate on January 1 in a civilization which counts its years as B.C. (“before Christ”) and A.D. (Anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”).

What is in a name? We all know the question, and the difficulty of answering it. A newborn baby can hardly be given a name which expresses its personality or achievements in life, since these remain to be seen in the future.

Most names given to babies are not original — thousands of them get the same name every year. Our Lord’s name, derived from the Hebrew Joshua, was probably common enough: several other people in the Bible have it; see Colossians 4:11, Acts 13:6, and Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, the title of the book in the Apocrypha. The Greek-speaking writers of the New Testament also use this same form of the name when referring back to Joshua in the Old Testament; see Acts 7:45 and Hebrews 4:8.

Even though a name is shared with many others, it still provides the individual with a label which can be spoken and used in speech and writing. Animals can recognize specific individuals of their own species or others by sight, or more often by smell. It seems to be unique to human beings that we use individual names which can be spoken, called, recorded, and remembered for years, or even thousands of years. We also confer names on other creatures, both the names of their species and, with domesticated animals, individual names. The latter can recognize their names, in many cases, when we call, but it is we humans who both bestow and use the name.

It is very difficult for us even to imagine life without individual names. When we tell or write stories about animals, we often invest the characters with imaginary names — Peter Rabbit, Donald Duck, Moby Dick — because it is hard to think of personalities without names.

In the creation story, the giving of names to other creatures is one of the first human acts (Genesis 2:19) In the course of life, people may acquire other names or titles which describe things about them or their achievements. Christ is such a title, meaning the anointed, or the Messiah. So too, of course, are other terms used of Jesus, such as Lord, Savior, Redeemer, and so forth. For him, as for us, it is the given name which remains more personal, for it points to his identity as a unique human individual, coupled irreversibly with his identity as the eternal Son of God. In honoring his Holy Name, we honor him.

The Rev. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This was published in the December 26, 1982 issue of The Living Church.