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What’s in a Name? - A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

Happy New Year! May 2023 be what we need it to be. But we’re not ready for it.

Mary and Joseph weren’t ready. Mary especially wasn’t ready to be mother to a child like the one who was foretold in an ancient prophecy: “He (will be) named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God…Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). She wasn’t ready to be the mother of “a Savior…the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

Mary also wasn’t ready to be called the Mother of God. Theotokos. Centuries later, that’s the word the Eastern Church, Greek and Russian Orthodox Catholics, began to use to describe Mary. It means “bringing forth” or giving birth to God. Who, besides the most narcissistic of humans, would dare to claim a name like that for themselves?

But that’s the thing about names. They are given to us by others, and sometimes, nothing can be done to change them. When my family moved to Memphis in the early 60s, “Yankee” was the name we were called, although we came from southern Ohio.

Today is known in the church as the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. On this day, before it was ever called New Year’s, Jesus was circumcised, something that still happens to Jewish baby boys on the eighth day after their birth. That eighth day is a day of claiming a boy’s Jewishness, a day of naming him.

“After eight days had passed,” the last verse of our Gospel lesson from Luke tells us today, “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (2:21). The angel Gabriel had visited Mary to give her that unexpected, unbelievable news: “You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31, The Message).

Mary had no choice in the matter. Not only would she be theotokos, her baby’s name had been chosen for her. Jesus. But what does the name “Jesus” really mean?

For some time now, we’ve been singing some hymns with old, familiar tunes set to brand, new texts. More often than not, the new words come from a songwriter whose given name is Carolyn. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is a wife, grandmother and pastor. Carolyn’s hymns have been sung by thousands of congregations, all over the world.

During the Advent and Christmas seasons, I’ve been reading her new book God’s World Is Changing. It has daily meditations on one of her many hymn texts. The meditation for December 28th is called “Name Above All Names,” a reference to Jesus in our Epistle today from Philippians (2:9).

So…when you hear the word “Jesus,” what comes to mind? Here are Carolyn Gillette’s reflection questions about names, our own names and the name of “Jesus.” On this New Year’s Day, think with me about these questions for few moments. I’ll ask the question twice, pause for reflection, and then give you my answer.

Q. What does your name mean? What’s the story behind why you have that name?

I don’t remember why my parents named me Thomas. Dictionaries say it means “twin.” And there’s Jesus’ disciple, so-called “Doubting Thomas.” Years ago, I was given a new name by a Native American friend. But that’s a story for another time.

Q. By what names and titles are you called?

“Father,” “Reverend,” “Pastor” - they’re are all titles, but they can feel like names. What about you? All of us have that title or name of “Daughter” or “Son.” How about “liberal” or “conservative”? Names and titles can be terms of endearment (“she’s a sweetheart”) or terms of labeling that do not communicate love (“he’s just a redneck”).

Q. Which names or titles do you claim most joyfully?

Being an “Episcopalian,” or Episcopal Christian, as Bishop Johnson used to call us, feels more and more joyful to me. I am not an “Evangelical” Christian, although I do believe in evangelism, sharing the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. Nor am I a “Charismatic” Christian, although I give thanks to God for all the charisms or gifts God gives us, in so many ways (I Cor. 12, Rom. 12). More on all of that at another time, also.

Q. Which names and titles for Jesus bring you the most comfort and joy?

In her meditation, Carolyn Gillette offers many familiar names and titles for Jesus that clearly give her comfort and joy: “Rabbi. Teacher. Master. Bread that satisfies. Light that guides. Shepherd calling us. The living Way. The Resurrection.” And one I particularly like: “God’s New Day,” which, of course, includes New Year’s Day. I wonder: What might Jesus be up to in this, God’s New Year’s Day?

Q. Which names and titles challenge you the most as you seek to follow Jesus?

King. I have come to use kin, or brother, to describe my relationship with Jesus. I believe I am his sibling, not his subject. At the very least, his friend. Jesus himself said to his disciples: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).

Q. As you have changed and matured, and as the world has changed around you,

what new or old names or titles for Jesus have taken on greater meaning for you?

One of the oldest, most traditional names or titles for Jesus is Savior: “the author of our salvation,” as one of our Eucharistic Prayers calls him. The word for salvation has the same root as the word “salve,” something put on a wound to encourage healing. So…Savior has always meant healer, another name or title that means a lot to Christians.

May we come to know Jesus as more than a name - as our healer, our brother, and our friend - this New Year’s Day, and all the days and nights of 2023. AMEN.

The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg

Priest in Charge

All Saints’ Episcopal Church

1508 S. White Station Road

Memphis, TN 38117



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