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Summary: We should take time to consider the meaning of Jesus's name, and the respect we owe that name.

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The Holy Name of Jesus (January 3)

Thirteen Days of Christmas

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is placed at this time of year because January 1 is the Octave day of Christmas, and that day was the day Jesus, Son of Joseph, Son of Mary, underwent the ceremony of circumcision. At a boy’s circumcision, the father gives him his name. We see that in the story of John the Baptist. You’ll recall that his father, Zechariah, didn’t believe the angel Gabriel when the angel told him that he was going to become a father in his old age. So he was struck dumb and had to endure the next nine months speechless. Worse, because he could not speak, his neighbors and relatives also thought he couldn’t hear. That meant, in passing, that he had to listen to them gossip about what a schmuck he was for nine whole months, perfectly understanding their bad-mouthing of his stupidity even though they thought he couldn’t hear a word.

Also incidentally, the extraordinary form calendar places this feast on the Sunday after New Year’s, guaranteeing that all Catholics at Latin Masses would get to hear about the holy Name every year. And that, I think, is very important.

The Hebrew name we write as “Jesus” was a compound word that also shows up in the OT as “Joshua.” It is formed from the short nickname of God, “Yah,” and the verb “to save” which is “shua.” So the word means “Yah saves” or “The Lord saves.” So the Salvation Army motto, “Jesus saves” is really redundant, literally meaning “The Lord saves saves.” The term “Yah” or “Yahweh” is given as the name of God on Sinai, when Moses asks God “who shall I say sent me.” The word means “I am who am,” or, even better, “I am–and watch what I’m going to do.” It’s more than a term of being, it is a term of action. God defines Himself by His actions in favor of His people.

That reality defines Jesus’s mission on earth. Look again at the text of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which is excerpted in our first reading. I’ll paraphrase. Jesus was substantially equal to God the Father. But He wasn’t content to “be” divine. Just maintaining His divinity, His by right, would be a kind of “rip-off.” Instead He emptied Himself of His divine prerogatives and honor, and took the substance of a slave–a human substance. He humbled Himself and obeyed the Father’s plan, which took Him to death, even the death of a slave–crucifixion. Because He earned it, the Father raised Him up, and gave Him the Name above all others, a Name before which all creation should worship, and all tongues profess that Jesus is Kyrios, Lord, Yah, to the glory of God the Father. So Yah-shuah earned the title Yahweh, Lord.

St. Matthew affirms this when the angel tells Joseph to call the boy Jesus, and specifies from what Jesus would save the people. It wouldn’t be the Romans or the Pharisees and Sadducees and Herod and all the other political beings. He would save them from their sins. And, moreover, His other name would be the one prophesied by Isaiah. Remember that “El” is the ancient Hebrew name for God. The word “El” probably predates “Yah.” But El always was remote, the creator God or the highest of the many gods. But this would be different. This boy would be an Emmanu-El, God who remains with His people.


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