By Beth Maynard
The secular world celebrates a new year today, having just gathered under the sign of champagne, party horns, and self-improvement resolutions soon to be broken. We’re here for a different celebration, gathered under a different sign: on our Christian calendar, today is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, given as the token of our salvation.
Just to situate this major feast — and it is a major feast, one of the very few on the Christian calendar that is considered so important that it must be observed even if it falls on a Sunday — just to situate it for us and put it in context, it’s not something that happens in isolation the way New Year’s Day does. No, it’s a central part of the Christmas cycle, that flow of festive days we’re in the middle of right now. Historically, this season gets its start from the date of the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary on March 25, then counts forward nine months from that to generate Christmas Day. Once Christmas has come, the Christmas cycle is lived out for 12 full days, from Dec 25, the Incarnation, through Holy Name, to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6.
Holy Name is one of the jewels in these 12 days of Christmas — 12 days that are a full and leisurely and joyous welcoming of the newborn Lord for us who believe, as opposed to the secular month-plus of stress and spending. It’s almost a relief to wad up the wrapping paper and throw it in the trash at about 4:30 on the afternoon of December 25.
As we heard in the Gospel, the eighth day after birth was the proper day for the circumcision and naming of a baby boy, and thus the day that Jesus as an observant Jew was officially given his name. The name, Luke tells us, that the angel had directed when he was still in the womb, and a name that means Savior or deliverer.
We heard in our first reading today a different name: the LORD, which is how many of our English Bibles render the divine name Yahweh. And I want to think with you for a minute about this contrast and this connection. Yahweh in the Old Testament is in a sense the proper name, the personal name of God, just as my personal name is Beth. And like the word Jesus, the word Yahweh has a theological meaning, although one that is a bit more mysterious and tough to pin down: Does it mean I am who I am? I will be whatever I will be? I let be, I allow existence to go on? All of those and more, most scholars suspect.
But as I’m sure we all know, this mysterious and awesome name of Yahweh became, in the Jewish tradition, so holy that it was not to be pronounced. Devout euphemisms take its place: Adonai, Elohim. Ha-Shem, which just means the Name. I remember a Jewish friend of mine telling me about his bar mitzvah, and about how terrified he was that the word Yahweh might come up in his Torah portion and he might accidentally slip and speak that holy Name aloud.
Honestly, as we look at that Jewish devotion to honoring Ha-Shem, the name, for preserving God’s holiness, his untouchable otherness, all we can have for that is admiration. There is a real truth there, an important one. And yet, for us as Christians, that truth is one side of the story. It’s one pole, if you will, of a tension, a tension of which we see the other pole today.
Because for us the Holy Name is, with all its grandeur and mystery and otherness, also the name of one person, born in one place, at one time, eight days old today and crying, as a baby will, at the first spilling of his blood in the Temple as part of the lifelong work of our salvation. Jesus the Savior.
This incredible Christian instinct for concretion, for localness, for specificity, is something other major religions often find misguided. But for us this pole of localness, of incarnation with all its limitations, is every bit as important as the pole of universality and limitless Divine life. Localized lowliness over here, ineffable holiness over there. A real, suffering body over here, eternal Spirit over there. Both these poles, in all their robustness, in all their paradox, are absolutely vital to the Christian vision.
That fact is something our Anglican tradition especially has never tired of reveling in, giving rise to all those great poems and hymns whose paradoxical language frames this Christmas season for us.
John Donne, speaking to Mary:
Yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and [thou] shutst in little room,
Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.
The great hymn that begins Lessons and Carols:
We like Mary rest confounded that a stable should display
Heaven’s word, the world’s creator, cradled there on Christmas Day.
And Richard Crashaw:
Welcome, all Wonders in one sight! Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night, Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.
As the world around us wakes from its hangover and tries to begin again, with no concrete path to take but merely a generic hope that this year, maybe, it will actually work to try harder, push further, look better, act better, do better —whatever “better” means, if anybody even knows anymore, and while I’m thinking about that could somebody please bring me some Ibuprofen.
As the world around us reaches out for hope in an atmosphere where nothing can really be laid hold of anymore, let us give thanks that in Christ we have concretion. We can reach out and lay hold of God. Yahweh, the mysterious divine name, has spoken himself to us in a human name we need never fear to pronounce. A human name we can call upon at any moment.
And so we have immensity, but it’s cloistered in Mary’s dear womb. We have eternity, but in loving condescension to us it’s been shut in a span. We have heaven, not in some airy undefined future, but here, in the eight-day-old babe; now, in our adoption and incorporation into him through faith and grace. Here and now, in the bread and wine that once again soak us and nourish us with his being. His name is Jesus, and today and every day that Name is all we need. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
The Rev. Beth Maynard is rector of Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church, Champaign, Illinois.