This coming Sunday is unusual: it falls on New Year’s Day, and that only happens every few years. In the church’s calendar, January 1 is not New Year’s but rather the Feast of the Holy Name (of Jesus). In the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, it was once called the Feast of the Circumcision (that was abandoned in the 1970s in favor of the current title — one has to think the previous name made some congregants uncomfortable!). The day remembers the Jewish practice of circumcising male children on the eighth day after birth, at which time they are also formally named. Presumably, Jesus would have experienced this ritual. And so the Christian tradition set aside a day for remembering it.
Of course, it only comes to the attention of a majority of the faithful when it happens to fall on a Sunday, and so this year we have an opportunity to reflect on the Holy Name of Jesus (which, frankly, is much more useful than reflecting on his circumcision).
Relatively early on in the life of the Christian community, the name of Jesus came to be seen and experienced as powerful. While it was a very common name during the period in which Jesus of Nazareth came to acquire it, Christians came to see it as having the uncommon power of connecting them to everything that they experienced in Jesus, to everything that he represented. An entire theology and practice eventually arose around the recitation of the Jesus Prayer, which in its longest form consists of the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer finds it roots in the Gospels [beginning with the cry of the blind man sitting at the side of the road near Jericho, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18:38); the ten lepers who “called to him, Jesus, Master, take pity on us’ ” (Luke 17:13); and the cry for mercy of the publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:14)]. But the Christian tradition saw the real power of this prayer as lying in the fact that it included the name of Jesus, and spiritual masters always conceded that, in the end, it was sufficient to shorten the prayer to simply reciting the name alone (though there are a number of shortened forms, all of which include the name of Jesus). The Eastern Christian churches (the Orthodox churches) in particular found great meaning in the Jesus Prayer and developed it more than any other, but in recent years, it has increasingly found a home among Christians outside the Orthodox tradition.
Unfortunately, mostly because of the activities of Christian people, the name of Jesus is not always experienced as a positive power in the world or in people’s lives. Sadly, the name of Jesus has been used in the past to justify horrific acts of violence against others, Christian and non-Christian alike. It has been used to justify all sorts of questionable agendas on the part of religious and secular leaders. For too many, the name of Jesus became identified with oppression rather than with liberation and transformation. Even today, some Christian people use the name of Jesus as a club to bash others or to drive a wedge between people and groups.
As we celebrate the Holy Name this January 1, we would do well to pause and reflect on what the name of Jesus means to us and how we use it in our own lives. Is it a name that draws us closer to God and therefore closer to the transformation of our own minds and hearts? Or, is it a name that we wear proudly to identify ourselves over against other people? Is it a name that we recite prayerfully and in humility, recognizing our own need for the grace that the One who bears it seeks to bring to us? Or do we recite it in order to build ourselves up and point out the deficiencies of others?
Increasingly, public surveys seeking to measure the attitudes of people towards Christians and Christianity find that people think of our faith and those who follow it as rigid, judgmental, opposed to science, moralistic, etc. We are increasingly seen as a negative force in the world. And we are largely responsible for that. Too often, we have mis-represented the name of Jesus to others. And we have done Jesus and his name a dis-service.
Perhaps in a year when we begin by celebrating the Holy Name, we can dedicate ourselves to being better representatives of it. Perhaps if we pray the Name better and with more humility, we can live the name better and with more humility, as well.
Happy New Year!