I must confess, as I most always feel when delivering a sermon, that I wish we – you and I – could be seated around a table, so that we could exchange ideas, thoughts, stream of consciousness responses to the words of scripture which we have just heard. You see, I should dearly like to hear from each of you what the big fuss is about a name. Especially is this a conundrum for me, when I recall how we begin every Eucharistic celebration, no matter the rite used: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires know, and from you no secrets are hid…” The psalmist writes, 22.9: “thou art he that took me out of the womb.” The prophet Isaiah, 49.1 and 5, among others is adamant regarding his origins and to what degree God knows him: “the Lord hath called me from the womb.” And, “the Lord that formed me from the womb.”
And if that be the case, if God knows us by name, why, then, do we need a name? Could we not better use our time at other things, than worrying about how an all-knowing God will recognize us? If I understand the matter correctly, according to biblical witness, with God we do not need a name.
We Moderns are tempted to think of ourselves as the only ones who have ever confronted, or been confronted by, this dilemma. In our liturgical context it may be informative to take a look at a few examples from the Bible. First, not to my amazement, when I read about the naming of Jesus, according to the Hebrew/Jewish rite in the Temple, there was and is nothing out of the ordinary in that ritual. It was expected of all Hebrew boys that they would be presented in the Temple. We Christians replicate this Jewish ritual in our Baptismal Rite, when the celebrant says to the parents and godparents “Name this child,” and that even though the child is already known. As was the case with Jesus, in the act of naming, the child is joining a community, with all its rights, privileges and responsibilities.
So, what is in a name? Why is a name a necessity of being human? What did and, at the same time, did not surprise me was in reviewing the word “name” in Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, I discovered four pages, each with three columns, single-spaced, and in the smallest font available, but still readable. The word “name,” as would be anticipated plays a major role throughout bible usage. This ranges from the mythical Adam’s naming of all the creatures on earth, to Abram and Sarai’s new names of Abraham and Sarah, to specific names of significant places and people, for example: ‘in the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord,’ to ‘the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name,’ to that mystery and unsearchableness of God “I AM THAT I AM.” And then, of course, fast-forwarding to the gospels, we know, long before his birth, by what name the Messiah was to be called: “thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he will save his people from their sins.” “and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us). [Matt. 1.22f.]
All this brings me back to my puzzle. Why is a name necessary at all? It becomes immediately clear. A name is not needed for God’s sake, but for our own. We need to know and understand each other, we need something by which and with which we have social interchange and to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. Simply stated, a name is ‘a word or phrase that constitutes the distinctive designation of a person or thing.’ A name is real, but an intangible, without which your and my interaction with each other could not take place. A name is something which, although we take it for granted, is absolutely necessary.
Cervantes: Don Quixote, Part II (1615). Book, Chap. 33: a good name is better than riches.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626): Of Marriage and Single Life: A good name is like a precious ointment; it filleth all around about, and will not easily away; for the odors of ointments are more durable than those of flowers. The writer of Ecclesiastes (7.1) goes even further: A good name is better than precious ointments.”
….Over centuries, we in the West, in naming our children, have lost some of the sense of derivation, still present in some Arabic and African names. I recall from a book which I read recently “Americanah” that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author, was proud of her name because it spoke to her parents hopes for her when she was born. I met a young woman on Harvard’s campus from Ghana who explained to me that such a practice takes place still. Names have meaning. They told us in times past of professions or vocation. When my wife and I lived in Germany, one of our neighbors was a Frau Wagenknecht. That name had entered long prior to our generation into common usage, but originally it announced to everyone that the bearer of that name was a coachman, someone who tended the carriages of the aristocracy. My own last name, now in everyday parlance, designated a position within a household staff.
However, a name, no matter today its origin or derivation, has another attribute which is in my estimation essential and has far-reaching implications. A name, even a common name such as Jessica, Keith, Sarah, or Jim, carries a hint of intimacy, of approachability, of familiarity, of awe and of respect. A name tells us that the individual before us is a unique being, even if that individual may be an identical twin. There is something special about an ordinary name that makes is no longer ordinary. A name reaffirms our individual humanity, a humanity which is in the image of the I AM THAT I AM. God does not need a name, as the Psalmist reminds us, in order to recognize us. It is we, who need a name as a reminder that something unique, something special has happened in the history of human kind, namely that God has chosen to reclaim the created order by choosing to come into our world in the form of Jesus, so that we no longer can cloak ourselves with the excuse that God is too removed to understand the human dilemma.
Just as Holy Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments, does not refrain from comingling politics and the needs and concerns of society with religion, so likewise do I not shy away from everyday life.
Many of us proceed into the year 2017 with feelings of anxiety, trepidation, and uncertainty because of abusive name-calling and efforts to dehumanize, to disenfranchise that uniqueness which God has given each of us. I am especially grateful that we have this feast day as a reminder of something that is greater and more positive and more progressive than each of us individually can imagine or implement.
Today, the Feast of the Holy Name, is not necessary for God, but for us humans, in order that we may be reminded of just how precious, how valuable each and every one of us is in the sight of God. And if we are, with all our foibles and gracefulness, our joys and our sorrows, important to God, ought we not see in the Other, not a stranger, someone before whom we ought to be afraid, but that which caused God to take on human form.
God has chosen through the Messiah, to whom the name Jesus has been given, to reclaim us unto the Godhead. In the name Jesus, God has reaffirmed what a good and joyous thing it is to be human, born slightly lower than angels. With that reminder, I bid you have faith and to take action, that all may discern in our own individual action and interaction why we call ourselves Christians, a special name, and as that wonderful hymn causes us to sing, causes us to bend the knee “at the name of Jesus!” Amen