By now, WOVO’s North Pole Radio is already a distant memory. Mariah Carey has once again been cryogenically frozen until next November, having made another $3 million in royalties for “All I Want for Christmas is You.” I’m guessing for most, on this first morning of 2023, we’re ready to lay the Christmas festivities aside and focus on making 2023 a better year than 2022, or 2021, or 2020. Come to think of it, the ‘20s have been a pretty rough decade so far. Despite the understandable desire to move past Christmas, I’ve actually spent a lot of time of this week thinking about how each of us has our own soundtrack for Christmas. For the first half of my life, back before streaming services and radio stations playing the same 33 Christmas songs for two months straight, there were two albums that played in my house indicating the Christmas season. On the record player, we’d spin John Denver and the Muppets’ “A Christmas Together” and in the CD player was “A Christmas Portrait” by the Carpenters. Since getting married, a third album has been added to the list, one that came from Cassie’s family, Amy Grant’s “A Christmas Album.”
Track number four on “A Christmas Album” is a song called, “Emmanuel,” and leading up to this Feast of the Holy Name, it’s been stuck in my head all week. The 80s synthesizer is pretty complex, but the lyrics are quite simple.
Lord of life, Lord of all;
He is the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One!
Here we hear seven different names by which Jesus is known. A quick Google search comes up with more than fifty names and titles for Jesus that are found in Scripture. So, what’s the deal? Why is this name thing so important? Why does Paul, quoting an early hymn, make the bold claim that God gave Jesus “the name above all names”?
For those of you who grew up with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the whole Feast of the Holy Name thing is probably still quite new. Holy Name Day is a Major Feast in the Episcopal Church, but because it falls on January 1, it is rarely commemorated, unless, like this year, it falls on a Sunday. Holy Name is new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, replacing the Feast of the Circumcision, though as a faithful Jewish couple, we know that Mary and Joseph would have both named their son and had him circumcised on the eighth day, as prescribed by the Torah. When it came time to name the child, there was no question. Both Mary and Joseph had been told by an angel that they should name him, Jesus.
Well, not exactly Jesus. It is probably more like Yehoshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Joshua or Jesus in English. No matter how you pronounce it, the name means “God saves.” It is a name, a title, and a mission statement all in one. Jesus, in name and in life, was the savior of all. Jesus, born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved” who was engaged to Joseph, which means “may God increase,” was born to fulfill the promises of God throughout history and to save all of humanity from the power of sin and death. God had repeatedly stepped into salvation history to save and deliver his people. From the time of Noah, whose name means “rest,” God shows a track record of being unwilling to let humanity destroy itself in sinfulness and self-gratification. On the ark, God saved a faithful remnant. In Abraham, which means “Father of many nations,” God chose a nation through which all nations might come into God’s saving embrace. Through Moses, “to draw out,” God delivered the Israelites from the bondage that came from Joseph’s brothers’ unfair dealings and subsequent self-serving Pharaohs. The prophets, Isaiah “God is salvation” included, again and again called the people of Israel “Wrestles with God” to forsake their sins and be saved. When it seemed clear that was not going to happen, God promised both punishment and redemption to God’s people. There is never a point at which God is willing to give up on the hope of restoring humanity to right relationship, which brings God ultimately to the person of Jesus, Yehoshua, God saves. Jesus was and is Emmanuel, the other title for their son which both Mary and Joseph received from God, which means “God with us,” and once Emmanuel came to be with us, God never left.
Sure, following the resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God. The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism. With deference to the power of names in Scripture, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming. For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony. Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship. Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason. But baptism is for next week.
This week, our focus is on the Holy Name of Jesus, God saves, and the many different names by which our savior has been known through the centuries. Over the course of Lectionary Year A, we’ll hear at least fourteen different names and titles from Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus, the Son of David, Emmanuel, the Messiah, Lord, Ruler, God’s own Son, the forgiver of sins, the servant of God, the Sower of good seed, the Son of Man, the Prophet, Rabbi, and King. No matter what name we call Jesus, he is and always will be the one who saves, who brings us into right relationship with God and with one another. The one who invites into a new way of living, a life that is based on love of God and love of neighbor, a life that seeks to set the whole world free from bondage to sin, oppression, fear, and heartache. The Prince of Peace, mighty God, holy one. Emmanuel. Yehoshua. Iesous. Jesus, the name above all names. Amen.