Feast of the Holy Name

Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life, shares a family story about his Grandmother who became ill at the age of 32. She was hospitalized for months, and eventually doctors told her family that she was on the verge of death. A series of treatments were attempted, but nothing was working. 

Her family decided, when all else failed, that they would try one more thing. They called for a Rabbi. When the Rabbi arrived, he performed a name-changing ceremony right there in the hospital room.

Curious about the whole situation, several family members asked why the Rabbi would do such a thing. It turns out that the Rabbi changed her name so that when the Angel of Death came, he wouldn’t know who she was. Ira’s grandmother changed her name in order to fool the Angel of Death. 

And it worked. She survived, got well, changed her name back to what it was, and lived to the age of 87. 

This family, by their own admission, is not particularly religious. Even for the religious among us, this story seems a little far-fetched. I don’t share it because I recommend it as a practice, I simply share it to highlight something important: most humans throughout most of history have placed a tremendous value on a person’s name. For a number of reasons this is not always the case today. 

The God revealed throughout the Old Testament had a name, though it was not until His encounter with Moses that we learn what that name is. Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Rachel—just to name a few—all lived and died without hearing this name. It is not until Moses was bold enough to ask that God decides to finally reveal His name to His people. 

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 

God’s answer?“Tell them that my name is I AM.” 

The God revealed throughout the Old Testament has a name: YHWH, which means “I AM.”  

But you would be hard-pressed to find a devout Jew—ancient or modern—who is willing to write or speak that name.  

Why is this?  

We teach our children to ask for people’s names, and to use them in conversation. When we are in a new setting we wear name tags that allow others to learn our name, and use it, even before they meet us. When we don’t know somebody’s name, but we think that we should, we feel bad enough to call them nicknames like “Buddy” or “Dude” or perhaps my personal favorite: “Hey man, how have you been?” It seems as though humans are wired to call others by their name.

Why then would God’s people often refuse to call God by His name? Ancient Hebrews did not write or speak the Divine Name of God out of a deep respect—perhaps even a holy fear—of God Himself. There are some things so sacred, they are not to be spoken or written by those who are profane.

 Sacredness and profanity cannot occupy the same space. 

We see this notion all throughout the Old Testament. Very few of God’s people were permitted to enter the inner-most portions of the Temple. Those who were permitted to enter did so under very strict regulations: they ate (or didn’t eat) the right things before entering, they dressed a certain way, and they only attempted to enter on the appointed days. God is sacred, humans are profane, and it takes Divine Intervention to allow the two of them to coexist. 

Which—if you listen closely during this busy season—is the message of Christmas: in the Incarnation of Jesus, the sacred and the profane occupied the same space without one destroying the other. 

This brings us to something that we are asked to ponder on this eighth day of Christmas: the naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21). 

The Incarnate God was given a name—a fairly common one in fact—and was called that name throughout his lifetime by all sorts of people. Today that name may very well be one of the most recognizable names on the planet. 

Let this sink in: the God whose name is so sacred it is hardly ever spoken took on a very ordinary name and has allowed anyone to speak that name, whether they are confessing their sin or stubbing their toe.  

Why would God allow this? Why risk the sacred for the sake of the profane? 

For an answer to these questions, we only need to look at the actual name given to Mary’s child on the occasion of his circumcision: “and they called him Jesus, which means Savior.” 

The Son of God took the risk of becoming human and assumed the name Jesus in order to complete a mission of reconciling God and humanity. The sacred became profane, was given the name Jesus, and lived and died in order to make the profane sacred. 

Or as Gregory of Nazianzus once put it: “He who is becomes. The Uncreated allows himself to be created. He whom nothing can contain is contained in the womb of a young virgin named Mary.” 

The celebration of the Holy Name happens at a very helpful time each year. In the midst of celebrating the sacred-becoming-profane at Christmas, we are also celebrating a New Year, and all of the fresh starts and resolutions that come along with it. 

Most of the next twelve months of our lives will be spent living in the ordinary. We will all face our own extraordinary moments—births, deaths, sickness, healing—but they will be few and far between compared to the ordinary moments we face each day. It is in the ordinary, everyday moments of our lives that we, by God’s grace, become the type of people who respond in holiness to the extraordinary moments we know we will face in the year ahead of us. 

When we reflect on the naming of Jesus, we remember that the sacred has become profane in order to make the profane sacred. The sacred has become ordinary in order to make the ordinary sacred. 

Names probably mean more than we realize. May this new year be one of growing into the new name given to each of us in our Baptism.

Feast of the Holy Innocents

A few excerpts from a sermon by Quodvultdeus, 5th century Bishop of Carthage, on Holy Innocents day.

On what drove Herod to slaughter babies in Bethlehem:

Why are you afraid, Herod, when you hear of the birth of a King? He does not come to drive you out, but to conquer the devil. But because you do not understand this you are disturbed and in a rage, and to destroy one Chile whom you seek, you show your cruelty in the death of so many children. … You destroy those with tiny bodies because fear is destroying your heart.

On grace and martyrdom:

God has taken up the children of the enemy into the ranks of God’s adopted children. The children die for Christ, though they do not know it. The parents mourn for the death of martyrs. The children make of those as yet unable to speak fit witnesses to themselves. … How great a gift of grace is here! To what merits of their own do the children owe this kind of victory? They cannot speak, yet they bear witness to Christ. They cannot use their limbs to engage in battle, yet already they bear off the palm of victory.

Feast of St. Stephen

Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, who was among the first deacons and the first recorded Christian martyr of the New Testament. On his Feast Day, I want to share with you a selection from a sermon preached in the sixth century by Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe in Northern Africa.
Before the excerpt, I recommend reading two passages of Scripture that help set the scene. The first is from 2 Chronicles 24:17-22 and tells of the martyrdom of Zecheriah. The second is from Acts 7:51-8:3, which portrays the martyrdom of Stephen under the approval of Saul.
May these readings and the words of St. Fulgentius encourage us all as we continue to celebrate and be changed by the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
A Sermon by St. Fulgentius on the Feast of St. Stephen
Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.
Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvellous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.
And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbour made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.
Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exults, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.
Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defense, and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.

A gem from today’s commemoration of Katharina Luther:

Martin Luther was unsure of whether he should marry. However, he eventually came to the conclusion that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.”

Matthew 15:

Jesus has harsh words for two groups of people.

(1) the Pharisees, and (2) a Gentile woman.

Their respective responses (v.12 for Pharisees, v.27 for woman) to those harsh words could not be more different, and is likely what Matthew is drawing our attention to.