"When eight days were fulfilled for the circumcision of the Child, His Name was called Jesus, the Name given Him by the angel before He was conceived in the womb."
In the Divine Office for today's feast, the antiphons (the little phrases that are added to the beginning and end of the Psalms) are all from Sacred Scripture, and each one of them refers to the name of God or to the name of Jesus. They call attention to the fact that the biblical writers of both Testaments placed a great deal of importance on the reality expressed by a name. To the biblical Jew, knowing someone's name was to be on a more intimate basis than otherwise. In a sense, knowing someone's name gave a measure of power and the ability to make demands of that person.
We see this even in our own culture: If someone has his back to you and you say his name he will turn around; he may even appear startled if you happen to call him by a nick-name known only to a certain group of friends. We are getting very sloppy about it today, but most of us can remember a time when people addressed each other with their first names only if they were friends, and even then in informal circumstances -- the rest of the time we addressed each other by our surnames, with a title prefixed to it: Mr. Smith, Mrs. Thomas, or Fr. Jones.
And if our sense of respect for each others' names was great, understand that among the Jews of the Bible, the proper name of God was never spoken (except by the High Priest, only once a year, in the holy of holies of the Temple at Jerusalem). If a Jew spoke of God, he would refer to Him by some descriptive attribute, and not by His proper Name. The idea here is that, in some measure, a man's name is equivalent to the man himself. The symbol of the man, his name, was taken for the reality of the man himself -- and all the more so with God: "My soul thirsts for Your holy Name, O Lord." To do something "in the name of" God is to do it with His authority: "blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord...." To invoke God's name is to call upon His power: "Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." To praise God's Name is to praise God: "From the rising to the setting of the sun is the name of the Lord to be praised." God's name is even thought of as a healing medicine: "Your Name is as oil poured out."
In the New Testament, God takes a personal interest in the naming of His Son and in the naming of John the Baptist, who was to prepare the way for His son. When the angel appeared to Zachary in the Temple, he told him that "thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John." And apparently this was revealed to Elizabeth as well, for when the baby was to be named, she refused to allow him to be called after his father, and announced that "he shall be called John."
Likewise, when the angel appeared to Mary, even before she had conceived the Child, he said: "thou shalt bring forth a child and shalt call His name Jesus." And to remove any doubt, the angel also conveyed this to Joseph: "That which is begotten in her is of the Holy Ghost ... and thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins." That both Mary and Joseph had received knowledge of the Holy Name, and were at that point the only people in the world who knew it, served to authenticate the testimony of the angel, both as to the divine origin of the Child, and to the fact that God was committing His son to them in chaste wedlock. For Joseph and Mary, the Holy Name was a sort of "password"; an "authenticator," as it were, for each to the other.
Even with our Lord, we see that His Name is an attribute: "thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins"; for the Hebrew name "Jesus" means a savior (in this case the Savior). And when He is referred to as "the Christ," it is with a Greek term which means "the anointed One" anointed somehow with holiness in the womb itself: "the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy to be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."
And just as the Jews of the Old Testament equated God and His power with the divine name, so do we Christians. In the Epistle this morning, Peter is discussing a cure that he worked on a crippled beggar by invoking the name of Jesus: "Silver and gold I have none," he says, "but in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk." Paul writes to the Philippians that "God has bestowed upon Him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend." (When I first took over the congregation in Miami, people all from the Bahamas, it was an absolute joy to see them make a little "curtsey" every time I mentioned the name of Jesus.) And isn't it a universal practice to make the Sign of the Cross and begin all of our prayers "In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost"? We Romans have been separated from the Greeks for a thousand years, but we both share a practice that was ancient even then.
Having said all these things, it should be obvious that it is a serious duty to hold the name of God in the greatest of reverence, and to use it only with the greatest of respect. It is, of course, one of the Commandments that we do so -- but even if it were not, it should siimply be obvious to all of us. And the obligation is two-fold. Firstly, God's Holy Name and the names of His Holy Family on Earth ought to be on our lips frequently in praise and prayer. They are pretty much "built in" to the official prayers of the Church, whenever we make those prayers our own; and we are always free to invoke them in our private prayers. And, secondly, no man should take the name of God in vain. Surely to invoke God's very being for an evil purpose, or even through plain carelessness, is to bring down a curse upon one's own self.
It is terribly sad to see men and women who are otherwise well spoken, and rarely vulgar, who continuously use the Name of God or the Name of Jesus to punctuate their sentences. If you must have some emotional expletives in your speech, you simply must find some other ones (how about "fiddlesticks" or "foo"?). Like all habits, using God's name improperly is a habit that can be broken through concentration and practice.
But this feast of the Holy Name is not intended to be one of recrimination -- rather, today, we should take great joy that God has taken us into His family as adopted sons and daughters, and that He has given us the intimate privilege of addressing Him by name. Let us resolve to call upon that Name frequently with praise, and petition, and thanksgiving, and with the adoration due to the Name of God who made all things, and who sent His Son to be our Savior.
May God bless † you now, in the
Name of the Father,