The Feast of the Holy Name: A Sermon


Merry Christmas, and welcome to the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The theme of the feast and the assigned readings present us with an ocean. So, deep breath, and let’s dive in.

Prior to our current prayer book, today’s feast was—as it still is in the Church of England—the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Jesus assumes our humanity, not generically, but very specifically. Joseph and Mary are Jewish; Jesus is circumcised. And with that, a specific and life-long challenge: what does it mean to be Jewish in this time and place? For Jesus—for all of us—identity is the start, rather than the end of the conversation. (I’m Scottish-American, male, straight: what am I going to do with that?)

He “was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Why ‘Jesus’? The reading from Matthew we heard a couple weeks ago (the angel talking to Joseph) provides the answer: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). The “for” makes more sense in Hebrew than in English: the name ‘Jesus’ is built off the Hebrew verb for “to save.” And in the Greek text, Jesus’ name, Ἰησοῦς, is identical to Moses’ servant’s name (Joshua), the one who leads the people into the promised land. (So into what promised land is this Ἰησοῦς going to lead us?)

“For he will save his people…from their sins.” That maybe wasn’t how one expected the explanation to end. Save his people from the Romans? That would have been more welcome. Whatever the time and place, we personally have both exterior and interior enemies, and most of the time we’re understandably far more interested in salvation from the exterior enemies. Occasionally we realize that there’s an interior enemy to be dealt with, so we have groups like AA. More often, the angel’s words end up forecasting an ongoing argument: “No, Lord, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature!” Or, with Augustine, “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.”

God, who’s out to save the entire human family, takes our external and internal enemies with equal seriousness. The problem with dealing only with the external enemies is that too little changes.

God brings Israel out of Egypt so that Israel can be free, so that Israel can model more human patterns of social life. Tragically, over the centuries Israel manages to simply replicate most of the patterns of Egyptian oppression. It’s easier to take Israel out of Egypt than Egypt out of Israel.

And we can count on this pattern repeating. Five hundred years ago, the Spanish in the New World were rightly (if hypocritically) criticized for being too interested in gold, for too many Indians dying in Spanish mines. But that’s only half the story, the second half of the story. Centuries earlier, when the Romans invaded Spain they went straight for the gold, and countless Spaniards died in Roman mines. The Spanish were eventually saved from the Romans, but they had—tragically—learned only too well what to do when they got the upper hand in a foreign country with even the faintest hint of gold.

So, back to the identity question, Jesus faces the ongoing challenge: how will he and his followers relate to these various internal and external enemies? And through this year’s lectionary readings we watch this play out in some detail with Peter, our patron saint.

Our Philippians text recalls the choices Jesus makes, and towards the end: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” The name “that is above every name” is pretty clearly the divine Name that we guess was pronounced ‘Yahweh’. By that time it was considered too holy to pronounce, so another word—often ‘Lord’—would be put in its place. English translations generally carry on this custom, so that, for example, in our first reading, ‘Lord’ appears in small caps or all caps to indicate that it’s standing in for ‘Yahweh’. This is, by the way, the reason ‘Lord’ can carry such weight in some New Testament texts. “…and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:3): that’s saying far more than that Jesus is an authority figure.

Two corollaries. First, once you say “Jesus is Lord,” “Caesar is Lord” (the caesars really liked that word) comes with a serious asterisk. Following Jesus’ example, his followers usually don’t point this out, but it’s there in the background, and appears as needed (“We must obey God rather than any human authority” [Acts 5:29]).

Second, the bestowal of the unpronounceable Name means that there’s no space between Jesus and God, or, in the language of the Gospel of John, between the Son and the Father. The God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament. And, further, Jesus’ exultation means that there’s no reason to fear a hidden god, no reason to fear that Jesus is just the “good cop” in a cosmic good cop/bad cop routine.

Jesus, God-with-us, saving us from our sins, our “Joshua” on steroids leading us into the promised land. We get a sense of that promised land in our psalm: “You have made him but little lower than the angels; / you adorn him with glory and honor; / You give him mastery over the works of your hands; / you put all things under his feet.” Speaking of identities, that’s usually not the one we associate ourselves with. The loudspeakers typically address us as ‘shoppers’. Every two years we’re—briefly—‘voters’. Our dreams are too small; Psalm 8 would remind us that it’s a glorious thing to be a human being.

It’s like that very young eaglet who through very bad luck ends up in a chicken coop and grows up thinking she’s a chicken. A chicken who’s really lousy at laying eggs.

That’s the human condition. And when we pray, sometimes the prayer is some version of “Lord, please help me lay more eggs.” “Save his people from their sins:” often the sin is assuming one’s a chicken, not an eagle.

Identity: the beginning, not the end of a conversation; a life-long challenge. On this Feast of the Holy Name we celebrate what Jesus did with his, opening for us the way of salvation, the way of reclaiming our human identity. May we continue to learn from Him, to follow Him.

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