By Mac Stewart
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. —Luke 2:21.
I used to be embarrassed by my full name, James MacGregor Stewart. All the other boys and girls in elementary school seemed to have much simpler names. I hated having to tell my new teacher at the start of every school year that I went by my middle name, but actually only part of my middle name — Mac. No, not Matt. Not Mack. Not Max (though it sounds like that when I introduce myself as “Mac Stewart”). Mac. Like the computer, not the truck.
I envied those whose introductions were more straightforward — the Johns and the Daniels and the Williams. And then there was that strange G in the middle of my middle name. No one else in kindergarten seemed to have anything like that. I often thought that James would have been preferable: more common, a nickname (Jim) with fewer possibilities for misunderstanding, and right there at the front of my entry on the roster every new year. I could have said Here with no further explanation. (I’m shy.) But my parents had called me Mac from the day I was born, and I never had the heart to change what I’d been given.
As I grew older, though, my attitude started to change. Mac, it turns out, lends itself to a fairly wide array of further nicknames: MacAttack, MacDonald, MacDaddy (my AOL Instant Messenger name for a time), Mac ’n Cheese, Mack Truck (despite the spelling difference). Unlike some other nicknames, these are all very friendly (I don’t know how those poor Richards make it through middle school), and I kind of liked it when other kids would call me by them. It made me feel distinctive, like they were paying attention to me in a playful and not malicious spirit, like I was recognized.
In recent years, my full name has become a conversation piece: Yes, I wear a kilt under my cassock, or My bagpipes are at home. The parish I served as a curate had an endearing Scottish-themed reception for me after my ordination, complete with William Wallace-like swords adorning one table, and some of my closer friends have brought things full circle by, unbidden, deciding to call me MacGregor (or now, Father MacGregor). Something that was once an embarrassment to me has become a sign of the affection of friends.
Today we celebrate the day when Jesus received his name. Older calendars call it the Feast of the Circumcision, newer ones the Feast of the Holy Name. Both things happened on the eighth day of his life, the octave of the Nativity. Whatever we call it, this is one of the reminders of our annual liturgical cycle: God has a name.
This is, in fact, quite a remarkable thing. Much has been written over the years on what we should call God, or whether we can. “Of Him there is neither name, nor can one be found of Him,” wrote Dionysius, with solid biblical precedents (Divine Names 1). Even an angel’s name was too wonderful to be given to Samson’s parents (Jdg. 13:18); how incomprehensibly wonderful must God’s name be.
Some have argued that the incomprehensibility of God’s essence means that we can truly address him with our words. Goodis not a meaningless name when applied to God. Even though the way in which God is good infinitely exceeds our conception of goodness, we are still saying something true of God when we call him good. It is more true of God than it is of any created thing. And this too has solid biblical precedence: Under how many different names do we address God in the psalms (Lord, King, Almighty, Most High)?
But this is not quite what we mean when we say God has a name. We call God truly, if only analogically, good, wise, just, merciful, almighty; and in God’s case these are more than simply attributes, since God in an important and unique sense is identical with his attributes. But they are still not quite, strictly and properly, his name.
A name designates what is singular and incommunicable; it can’t be shared or duplicated or abstracted from its irreducible particularity. My name may be thoroughly Scottish, admitting all kinds of associations with pipes and swords and kilts, along with trucks and computers and cheese. But when my friends affectionately address me as MacGregor, they’re not merely expressing their approval or commendation of all those things. They are talking to me, as I am standing right in front of them, not reducible to my attributes whether hereditary or personal, incommunicably singular and inexhaustibly strange (with an emphasis on the latter).
When we say the name Jesus, whether we are reading it out loud in the Scriptures, invoking it at the end of prayers, extolling it for a gift received (Praise Jesus!), telling it to one who hasn’t really heard it, doubting it in a time of trial, beseeching it through acute suffering, inhaling it with every breath, or (God forbid) blaspheming it as a casual curse, we are identifying someone who is incommunicably singular and inexhaustibly strange; not reducible to his attributes, but a person, in the fullest, richest, most unimaginably glorious sense of that word. His is a name that was shamed all the way to the ignominious death on a cross, a cause of embarrassment to his closest friends who left him for dead. But by God’s marvelous vindication this name became their great joy, their release from sin and shame, their means of grace and their hope of glory. The risen and exalted king of the universe has a name, and you can talk to him: Jesus.
You don’t have to jump through any hoops. You don’t have to get your résumé in order. You don’t even have to go anywhere. “[T]o reach that destination one does not use ships or chariots or feet” (Augustine, Confessions 8.8.19). You need only say — whether confidently or faintly, attentively or distractedly, hopefully or dejectedly, joyfully or miserably — Jesus.
Jesus, help me. Jesus, I need you. Jesus, I love you. Jesus, where are you? Jesus, I can’t handle any more. Jesus, fight for me. Jesus, hold me. It is the name that is above every name, the name at which every knee shall bow, every tongue confess (Isa. 45:23; Rom. 14:11; Phil. 2:10). It is the name that charms our fears and bids our sorrows cease. It is music in the sinner’s ears, life, and health, and peace. It is the name of your beloved.
Let it therefore affect you, as the name of your earthly beloved affects you. The name of your beloved brings to you, no doubt, different feelings at different times. The surge of excitement when you heard someone mention him in the romance’s uncertain beginnings; the eager warmth that came over you when you read her name on the note; the settled confidence that attends the name in your relationship’s maturity; the agonized frustration with which you pronounce it when he has done something inconvenient; the piercing sorrow its utterance inflicts when she is gone. Whether it excites you or infuriates you, delights you or pains you, it is impossible to ignore, this name of your beloved. It grips you and moves you, changes you and charges you, rouses you to seek his face wherever it may be found, to search out him whom your soul loves.
The Lord would have his name so affect you; to excite you with his charm, to exhort you with his fury, to delight you with his sweetness, and to bring you peace through your inevitable pain. All that you do, then, do in his name (Col. 3:17), and you will discover how the singular and strange God that name identifies will, as the angel said to Joseph, “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).