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God’s Name and Ours

By Jon Jordan

Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life, shares a family story about his grandmother who became ill at the age of 32. She was hospitalized for months, and doctors told her family that she was on the verge of death. A series of treatments were attempted, but nothing was working.

Her family decided, when all else failed, that they would try one more thing. They called for a Rabbi. When the Rabbi arrived, he performed a name-changing ceremony right there in the hospital room.

Curious about the whole situation, several family members asked why the Rabbi would do such a thing.

It turns out that the Rabbi changed her name so that when the Angel of Death came, he wouldn’t know who she was. Ira’s grandmother changed her name to fool the Angel of Death.

And it worked. She survived, got well, changed her name back to what it was before, and lived to the age of 87.

This family, by their own admission, is not particularly religious. Even for the religious among us, this story seems a little far-fetched. I don’t share it because I recommend it as a practice, I simply share it to highlight something important: most humans throughout most of history have placed a tremendous value on a person’s name.

The God revealed throughout the Old Testament has a name. But you would be hard-pressed to find a devout Jew — ancient or modern — who is willing to write or speak that name.

Why is this?

We teach our children to ask for people’s names, and to use them in conversation. When we are in a new setting, we wear name tags that allow others to learn our name — and use it — even before they meet us. When we don’t know somebody’s name, but we think that we should, we feel bad enough to call them nicknames like “Buddy” or “Dude.” One way to honor the memory and plight of those who have been wrongfully killed is to “say their name.”

Humans are wired to call others by their name.

Against this backdrop the ancient Hebrew prohibition against uttering the Divine Name might seem strange. But it is helpful to remember that ancient Hebrews did not write or speak the Divine Name of God out of a deep respect — even a holy fear — of God himself. There are some things so sacred, they are not to be spoken or written by those who are ordinary.

The sacred and the ordinary cannot occupy the same space, or so it would seem.

We see this notion all throughout the Old Testament. Very few of God’s people were permitted to enter the innermost portions of the temple. Those who were permitted to enter did so under very strict regulations: they ate (or didn’t eat) the right things before entering, they dressed a certain way, and they only attempted to enter on the appointed days. God is sacred, humans are ordinary, and it takes divine intervention to allow the two of them to coexist.

If you listen closely during this busy season, this is part of the message of Christmas: in the incarnation of Jesus, the sacred and the ordinary occupy the same space without one destroying the other.

This brings us to something that we are asked to ponder on this eighth day of Christmas: the naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21).

The incarnate God was given a name — a fairly common one in fact — and was called that name throughout his lifetime by all sorts of people. Today that name may very well be one of the most recognizable names on the planet.

The God whose name was too sacred to be spoken aloud took on a very ordinary name and has allowed anyone to speak that name and live to tell the story, whether they are confessing their sin or stubbing their toe.

Why would God allow this?

Why risk the sacred for the sake of the profane?

“And they called him Jesus, which means Savior.”

The sacred became ordinary, was given the name Jesus, and lived and died to make the ordinary — and even the profane — sacred.

The Feast of the Holy Name occurs at a very helpful time each year. Amid our celebration of the sacred-becoming-ordinary at Christmas, we are also celebrating a New Year, and all the fresh starts and resolutions that come along with it.

Most of the next 12 months of our lives will be spent living in the ordinary. We will all face our own extraordinary moments — births, deaths, sickness, healing — but they will be few and far between compared to the ordinary moments we face each day.

It is in the ordinary, everyday moments of our lives that we, by God’s grace, become the type of people who respond in holiness to the extraordinary moments we know we will face in the year ahead of us.

Names probably mean more than we realize. Today we remember the holy name given to Jesus on his eighth day. But we also do well to remember the holy name given to God’s people, first in Antioch and then across the world.

We are Christian. Little Christs. Human beings on the path towards becoming like Jesus.

We become like Jesus by living the type of life Jesus lived day in and day out. And if you spend any time in the gospels you realize that his life was marked by silence, solitude, prayer, fasting, and meditating upon Scripture. Yes, Jesus had extraordinary moments where he responded “on the spot” in ways that leave us in awe. But we are wrong if we assume that his responses in the extraordinary moments of his life were detached from his overall lifestyle, the ordinary moments of his life.

I number myself among the many former evangelicals who were drawn to the rich liturgical and sacramental life of the Anglican Communion. I saw, from the outside, a prayer book tradition committed to engraining these basic spiritual practices into daily life. Anglicanism offered a common daily office that set a framework for regular prayer and Scripture meditation, and a liturgical year that prescribed days and seasons of fasting, silence, and solitude. Perhaps naively, I imagined that by joining this communion within Christ’s Church I would be surrounded by those who are similarly committed to these things.

I was wrong.

What I found instead were ordinary people — like me — who had more often than not allowed the hectic nature of daily life to draw them away from the rich formation offered by the daily office and the liturgical year.

Though my vision of the Anglican world — and of myself — is a bit more realistic now than it was a decade ago when I was confirmed, I remain energized by a fairly simple vision for the formation of Christian communities: regularly present before God’s people these two gifts, motivating and training them to make the most of the daily office and the liturgical year.

May this new year be one of growing further into the name given to each of us in our baptism, and of an increased adoption of these ordinary daily practices that prepare us to face the extraordinary moments of life.

And for those of us who are named as Anglican Christians, a renewed commitment to further inhabiting the Anglican way may be the most direct path towards becoming more deeply Christian this year.


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