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.