The Meaning of Jesus’ Name

creche1-copyWhen the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that the child she was about to conceive in her womb would be the heir of the House of David, making him a second David, one might have thought that the child would be named David after his forebear. But the angel said the child should be named “Jesus” and he was given that name when he was circumcised on the eighth day.

This name tells us that not only was this child another David, a fulfillment of what royalty means in the eyes of Jesus’ heavenly Abba, but another savior. How so? In the many times that Israel’s God Yahweh was called a “savior,” there was usually an act of violence. That is, God “saved” God’s people by defeating the enemies who were oppressing Israel. In some cases, as in the Psalms, an individual was delivered from a violent mob. More often than not, the delivered victim called on God to commit violence on the oppressors. But saving God’s people in that way didn’t change the violent structure of human culture.

The name Joshua, Jesus’ earlier namesake, means”Yahweh saves.” Joshua “saved” Israel by violently destroying the peoples of Canaan. But just as Jesus was to prove to be a different, even contrary king than David, Jesus was to be a different, even more contrary savior. To the disappointment of many, Jesus did not “save” Israel by scattering the Roman armies and ruling in Caesar’s stead. (See The Naming of Jesus.)

Come Easter, we will see that Jesus saves by dying on a cross. That’s an odd way to save anybody. Perhaps it is that oddity that led to the notion that God saved us by suffering our punishment. But God was not suffering our punishment, Jesus was suffering from human violence in order to save us from our violence. It isn’t the crucifixion in itself that saves us from our violence but the Resurrection and, crucially, Jesus’ forgiveness that saves us from our violence.

If it is by forgiveness and not violence that Jesus saves us, then we cannot participate in Jesus’ gift of salvation though violence but only through forgiveness. By forgiveness, Jesus has given us an escape route from our own vengeful rage if we are willing to take it. We are inclined to shrink from this challenge when we think about how vulnerable that makes us. We would rather use our rage to seek out the vulnerability of others. Can we, instead, take heart and take the risk by recalling how vulnerable Jesus was as a baby born into a violent and vengeful world?

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.