A Sermon for the Holy Name

by Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector

The Holy Name

Luke 2:15-21

Names are curious things. My given name, Louise, never seemed strange to me until I learned that it means “famous warrior” or “renowned fighter,” neither of which is how I think of myself. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been more comfortable with my nickname, although since it’s Weezie, I try not to be too critical of other people’s names. Still, there are names that can’t help but grab your attention. For example, the late Frank Zappa was a legendary musician, composer, songwriter, actor, filmmaker, and producer, but one of his most enduring legacies is that he has children named Dweezil, Moon Unit, and Diva Muffin. In recent years, other celebrities have named their children Apple, Bear, Blue, Bronx, and North, to name a few, and God only knows why, but there’s bound to be a story behind each one.

Names tell stories. When Buck and I were expecting our first child, we thought we had come up with the best name possible. We knew that he would be a boy. Buck didn’t want him to be a junior, but we loved the idea of family names. We thought it would be nice to honor our fathers, and we came up with the idea of naming our son with his grandfathers’ middle names: Buck’s father’s middle name was Eley and mine was Robert. We thought Robert Eley Blanchard was quite a handsome name…until I told a friend one night what we were thinking. Steeped in Southern tradition, she thought that we were brilliant, because where we heard “Robert Eley Blanchard,” what she heard was “Robert E. Lee Blanchard.” She thought we were even more clever because his initials would be REB…reb.

Now there was nothing wrong per se with any of that, except we hadn’t even thought of the name in that way, much less intended it. That was not the story we wanted our son’s name to tell. We were simply trying to honor our own two fathers, and we had wanted our son’s name to tell that story. We didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives explaining the distinction, and we certainly didn’t want our son to have to explain it. Instead, we named him after a favorite uncle, which is a different, but wonderful, story in itself.

Jesus’s name tells a story, too. The story begins when angels visit Mary and Joseph. In Luke’s gospel, the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she will bear a son and name him Jesus. Matthew’s gospel tells a similar story about Joseph; an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him that Mary will bear a son, whom Joseph is to name Jesus. Each of the angels reminds Mary and Joseph not to be afraid.

The story continues, of course, when the angels’ promise that Mary will bear a son comes true and then when Mary and Joseph do indeed name that baby Jesus. That naming is what we celebrate today, the eighth day of Christmas, New Year’s Day, and what is known in the church as the Feast of the Holy Name. Under the Law of Moses [Leviticus 12:3] and the customs associated with it, a baby was circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth. Thus, when Mary and Joseph named their baby Jesus, they were following both the law and the angels’ instruction to name him Jesus. The Feast of the Holy Name recognizes that the naming of Jesus was both a fulfillment of the law (that the child is named) and of God’s purposes (that the child’s name shall be Jesus).

And, of course, Jesus’ name itself tells a story. In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “Savior” or “Deliverer.” Both in his person and his name, Jesus reminds us that he was and is the salvation from whatever evils – political, social, and spiritual – have bedeviled us from the time that he lived on earth until now…and for all time. His name itself invokes his presence; as he promised his disciples, “where two or three gathered in my name, I am there among them.” [Matthew 18:20] The Prayer of St. Chrysostom, familiar to so many of us from the service of Morning Prayer, echoes that promise: “Almighty God…you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them…” [Book of Common Prayer, 102] The third century theologian Origen noted that Christians “draw their courage not from incantations but from the name of Jesus and from the commemoration of what he has done.”[1]

And that is how the story of Jesus’s name continues in our lives. We remember his name by the stories of his life, death, and resurrection, and we are ourselves healed and inspired. We recall his name in the sacraments of our liturgies, and we are reminded of his ongoing presence among us and our challenge to be more like him. But there is more, and this first day of a new year is a good time to remember that the power of Jesus’ name is not limited to study and worship. His name itself reminds us that rebirth, redemption, and resurrection are the heart and soul of who we are. His name itself reminds us that his story is our story.

So in this new year, resolve to call upon the gift of Jesus’ holy name. Let the name itself be your prayer. Say it often. Say it wherever you are. Silently or aloud. You’ll discover that you are both more aware of the divine presence in everyday life, in those around you, and in yourself. As Brother Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist says,

Knowing someone’s name gives a certain access, intimacy, and power. You have Jesus‘ name. Use it. Breathe the name of Jesus as you make your way through the day. Breathe the name of Jesus for yourself and for others, those far off and those who are near. Jesus will live up to his name for you. Breathe the name, use the name “Jesus,” because there is power and identification in claiming and using and sharing a name.”[2]

Names tell stories. Jesus’ name reminds us that we are all part of his story. In this new year, let him be a part of yours.
[1] Arthur A. Just, Jr., ed. Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 44.
[2] Curtis G. Almquist. The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2008), 57.