The Naming of Jesus

HolyFamilybyGutierrez“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)

This little verse in Luke probes deeply into the meaning of the Incarnation. When God took on human flesh, God became a particular human being at a particular time and culture. The circumcision on the eighth day marked Jesus as a Jew. When he could only make inarticulate sounds, he was initiated into the rich cultural matrix of his Jewish tradition.

On the same day, the boy was named Jesus (Joshua), binding him to the associations with others in his culture who bore that name. The name is fitting in that it means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus certainly lived up to his name by being the savior of humankind. The history of the name in the Jewish tradition, however, is sometimes problematic.

A man named Joshua led the Jews into the Promised Land through a violent conquest according to the Book of Joshua. This Joshua’s character and actions were quite the opposite of Jesus, who preached nonviolence and embodied nonviolence in his life. Perhaps the name was chosen by the angel to give us a new meaning of what it really means for Yahweh to save. That is, Yahweh does not save by leading a violent conquest; Yahweh saves through Jesus’ leading us into a Promised Land based on peace and nonviolence.

The prophet Zechariah had a vision of a high priest named Joshua standing in a soiled robe while submitting to Satan’s judgment. The Lord intervenes and rebukes Satan. Then he clothes Joshua in a clean garment. (Zech. 3)  Being sinless, Jesus would not have needed to be clothed in a new garment, but he stood in the place of sinful humanity when he was nailed to the cross. According to Paul, Jesus himself is the new clothing we put on in order to put on the New Humanity.

When I was young and resentful about many things, one of the things I was resentful about was the imposition of family history and the American culture I was born into. After all, nobody consulted me about it. But now I figure that if being born into a culture with its pluses and minuses and embracing that culture in order to transform it was okay for Jesus, then it should be okay for me.

The Name of Names

crecheOne important feature of a name is that it identifies us and sets us apart from other people. Names do not just identify us individually; they also give us context, such as where we come from. Medieval names such as Francis of Assisi were like this. Names also identify the culture we live in and come depending on where we have German names, Japanese names or Scottish names such as mine. Within a national identity, our names tell others what families we come from such as the Smith family or the Bach family. Not only the surname but our first and middle names often repeat names used in the family. My baptismal name Robert is also my father’s name, for example. In mythology, deities tend to have names such as Zeus, Thor or Vishnu. These names designate distinctive personalities which are basically human, if writ large. The thing about names in all these cases is that each person who has a name, whether a dog, a human, or a deity is finite, a part of the world.

When it comes to speculating about what being may have created the world, we suddenly become very shy about names. We might use a term such as The Father Who Made us All or a term such as God which precludes having a particular name such as Zeus. When Moses asked the deity who spoke to him out of the burning bush for a name, the answer was Yahweh, which really was a non-name as it meant something along the lines of: “I am being what I am being.”

These considerations make the following verse from Luke’s Gospel astounding: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” This boy was/is also the Logos who was with God in the beginning and without whom nothing was made that was made according to the Prolog to John’s Gospel. The term Logos is another example of not naming the unnameable creator of the universe and yet this same Person without a name “emptied himself” as Paul said in Philippians, so as to be born as a human being. As a human baby, the unnameable was named, a name stamping him with a particular culture and a particular family. The circumcision of this body is yet one more cultural marker.

So deep was the Word’s immersion in humanity, that he humbled himself and was “obedient unto death, even the death of a cross.” The result of this descent was that the crucified Logos was raised up and the ordinary Jewish name he bore has become “a name above every name,” a name to which all humans should bow. And yet it is because the unnameable became human and nameable that this name is so exalted and awesome to us, all the more awesome in that we resist the lowliness of the Logos through whom we ourselves were made.