Materials for Worship on New Year’s Day – the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

 Rachael writes: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” I’m sure we’re all familiar with these words from Juliet as she tries to convince Romeo that his name, the name of her family’s rival house of Montague, is unimportant. It’s often quoted to suggest that the names of things do not affect the what they really are.

We know that that is true, in the sense that it is factual. To call a rose a table doesn’t suddenly make it a table. But we also know the importance of names. Parents agonise over what to call their children. There are hundreds and hundreds of websites out there with millions of names listed to help them choose. You can take tests and questionnaires to find the perfect name for your baby. It’s generally the second question asked of parents to be, after what the gender is, “have you chosen a name”. Because in that we think we can grasp something of the (still yet unborn) child’s identity. The name tells us a story, gives us a glimpse of their future.

I wonder if any of you have ever changed your name? Maybe your first name in an attempt to reinvent yourself or give a certain impression in a new environment, such as going from family nickname to something more formal, Bob to Robert or Flic to Felicity. You may have decided to go in the other direction and tried to throw off your childhood trauma by changing the name that was used to nag or criticise you, coming up with something new or alternative that you felt better suited your personality. Approximately half of the married people here are likely to have made a change to their name at some point as well. It’s not such the done thing these days, or at least, it’s not just assumed that the woman will take the man’s name. We have friends who combined their names to come up with something new altogether. Of course, for Charlotte and I there wasn’t the same cultural precedent so we got to choose. In the end I took Charlotte’s name and for a long time I found it strange and a little sad to no longer be Rachael Harrison. But now I am a proud Wright, it feels like it fits, and I never think twice about it.

So names are important. They do tell us something about the person they belong to. They are personal and can be deeply tied to our identity. We take them for granted I think but they’re quite powerful really.

The name “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves”— and it is holy in every way. It signifies the bearer’s divine status on account of his supernatural conception by the Holy Spirit, and it spells out the specific mission on which he is sent: to be God’s agent of salvation for Israel, and through Israel, for the whole world.

Gabriel and the angels who appeared to the shepherds, give us many titles for Jesus: Son of the Most High, Son of God, Saviour, Messiah, and Lord. Each is a window into Jesus’ identity and mission. There are many, many more, but they are all encapsulated in “Jesus”.

Somehow that name made its way into common parlance as an expletive and that has only served to cheapen something which should be holy and awe-inspiring. We can easily forget the meaning and the one to whom it belongs and throw “Jesus” around like it’s “Jo” “Jack” or “Jane”. There are two contemplative prayers which I use where saying the name of Jesus, though not really the primary function of the prayer, has become a very powerful spiritual practice for me. One is the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) and the other is the rosary (“Hail Mary full grace, the Lord is with thee…blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus”). It’s declaratory and worshipful, humbling and hopeful, to say the name of Jesus in prayer.

“Yahweh saves” – our reading from Galatians 4 is a wonderful development of that tiny phrase and huge concept: “God sent his Son, born of a woman, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God”.

Jesus – Yahweh Saves – has come that we might be adopted into God’s Kingdom. And if we can cry “Abba, Father” then we are also called by a new name: “children of God”. Whichever name we might have changed or taken in the past, whatever our parents might have called us, our truest identity is there as God’s precious and beloved children. That is who we belong to. Is there anything more powerful?

As we go forward into this new year, may we treasure these words, this name, and like Mary ponder it in our heart. May we, like the shepherds, glorify and praise God for who God has made us. And like them, may we share this incredible news with all whom we meet, that they too might be amazed.

Our collect for today:

Eternal Father,
who gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus
to be the sign of our salvation:
place in every heart, we pray,
the love of him who is the Lord of every year
and Saviour of the world;
who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, in time and for eternity. Amen.