Jesus' name was not Jesus
The Feast of The Holy Name
Philippians 2:5-11 & Luke 2:15-21
Unless you come from a Latin country, Jesus isn’t a typical name. Working in hospitals, I’ve heard comments on how unusual it is or even off-putting to name a child Jesus. Many of us don’t realize that Jesus’ name was not Jesus. The name Jesus comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word for the Hebrew name Yeshua. For English speakers, the English translation of Yeshua is Joshua. We don’t seem to have any qualms with naming our children Joshua. In fact, Joshua has been one of the most popular boy names in the United States since the 1970s.
This difference between Joshua to Jesus seems to stem from the early English translations of the Bible, which were translated from Latin. Those transcribers kept the Latin name for Jesus while using English translations for many other names. And I believe, we English speakers have heard this difference for generations and we now place a special emphasis on the name Jesus; holding it up as holy.
Names are important. We often take a long time to choose the right name for our children. There are numerous websites dedicated to helping parents name their children. And as we look on these sites, we find that names have meanings. For example, Joshua means “God is my salvation” and Stephen means “Crown.” In the Bible, we also find when something great has changed a person, their name also changes: Abram becomes Abraham, Sari becomes Sarah. Cephas becomes Peter. But Joseph didn’t need the internet to name his child. An angel came and told him to name his child Yeshua, and he did.
I find it interesting that a name is part of a person but not all people with that name are the same. We may know many people named Steve but clearly, not all of them are me. If I mention the name Donald, you may think of a duck or a past president. But for us English speakers, if I mention Jesus, we likely only think of one person, the Messiah.
We may have come to the singular name Jesus by a quirk of translation, but this allows us to bring extra meaning to some biblical passages. In Philippians, for example, we read that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” So, we find that some people, due to their piety, will give a small bow upon hearing the name of Jesus. If you ever have the pleasure of attending morning prayer at the School of Theology, you will notice this immediately when the majority of seminarians, priests, and professors, offer a bow when his name is mentioned in prayer. This is a simple gesture of oblation that some people offer the King of Kings, Christ our Lord, based on this scriptural passage.
But this passage is actually a hymn. And when we dissect this poetry, we will find that the name “that is highly exalted above every name" in heaven and on earth is not the name Jesus. According to the new Interpreter’s Bible Commentary,
“To give someone a name is to give him or her status and power. The name bestowed on Jesus here is ‘the name that is above every name,’ which is clearly the name of God. Perhaps the fact that this name is not clearly specified is deliberate. By tradition, the name of God could not be spoken or written.”
The name “God" is the only name that is highly exalted above every other name. And if we interpret this any other way then Jesus’ name would be above God’s.
I find it interesting that we, as a Church, hold up a specific day to what seems to be a rather ordinary event; the naming of a child. Before the 1979 Prayer Book, the name of this feast day focused on the other significant event and was called the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.
In traditional Judaism, on the eighth day after the birth of a son, the father had the responsibility to have his son take part in a Brit Melah or bris. During this ceremony, your son is circumcised, and, for the first time, you announce the child’s name. This was a big deal, for the circumcision marks this child’s covenantal relationship with God. It also marks the completion of receiving his soul. In Christianity, we would call such a ceremony a sacrament. All sacraments have an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. This practice of circumcision comes out of Genesis 17, where Abram enters a covenant with God, and his name is changed to Abraham. As a sign of this covenant he, his children, and his descendants are to be circumcised.
We can find some parallels between a bris to Christian baptism. In baptism, there is the outward and visible sign of water. The inward and spiritual grace is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family, the forgiveness of sin, and new life in the Holy Spirit. Through baptism, we are adopted as children of God and members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God. Both Brit Melah and baptism are rights of initiation into a faith community.
So, on this day, eight days after his birth, Joseph took his baby to be circumcised and he named him Jesus, the name given by the angel. Jesus was Jewish. He and his family followed the customs and practices of their faith. We celebrate this event. We celebrate the faithful parents, Mary and Joseph, who by this act committed this child to a faith community and separated him from the world, marking him as a child of God. Through this act we witness God coming to us in the flesh, literally. So that we all may know and recognize the one God in three persons. In the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.