How did you get your name?
You may have earned a title, such as Doctor, through your own hard work and perseverance. You may have legally changed your name if you’re a married woman. You may be known to family and friends by a nickname as a result of a charming childhood story. But none of those things change the fact that you were originally given a name.
When your father and mother discussed what name to give you, they probably considered names of other family members, current popular names, and how potential first names sounded with your last name. Your parents had probably decided on your full name long before they set eyes on you, but they certainly made it official long before they knew you very well. Hospitals are fussy about babies having names.
All of the above points to one of the reasons that the Church celebrates an odd-sounding optional memorial on January 3: The Most Holy Name of Jesus.1
How did our Lord receive the name of Jesus? It wasn’t because the Blessed Virgin thought the word “Jesus” sounded nice or because Saint Joseph had a relative with the same name. God the Father sent an angel to Saint Joseph in a dream to tell him what to name the child that his wife was carrying.2 This is similar to the moment that had occurred thousands of years before, when a man named Moses left his flock to investigate a burning bush.3
Neither man was expecting a supernatural event. Either man could have come up with any number of reasonable names on his own. After being reassured by the angel about Mary and her unborn child, Joseph could have given the child any of the names in his family genealogy, a list we hear at Mass often during Advent.
Similarly, Moses didn’t have to ask God to tell him His name. Moses could have come up with his own name for God based on the fire, bush, or mountain that were present at the time of that miraculous event. But both Joseph and Moses were humble, and humble men know to listen, not talk, when God speaks. More importantly, both men knew how to humbly accept a mysterious name as a gift from God.
What does the name “Jesus” mean? The Gospel of Matthew tells us the answer outright: “[Y]ou shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”4
Your name may have been chosen because someone wanted to honor an ancestor, friend, or famous person. The Church desires that each Catholic have at least one name related to our faith, but just because you were, say, named after Saint Catherine of Siena, that doesn’t automatically make you a papal advisor or stigmatist.
On the other hand, our Lord wasn’t given a name that means “God saves” because it was hoped that He might live up to that high-sounding goal. Instead, He was named Jesus because saving people from their sins was exactly what He was going to do. He was our Savior long before He was born into our fallen world, and His name revealed that to others long before they knew what that meant. The current gods of our culture—science, money, violence, physical appearance, sensual pleasure—may distract us from our pains, but they will not save us from our sins.
Some names connote power. High school students think about the prestige associated with potential colleges before they make their final decisions. Those looking for jobs weigh the reputation of potential employers. However, the reputation of any company or school may change from glorious to notorious overnight due to financial setbacks, poor policies, or even bad Yelp ratings.
But Jesus’ name has power that does not change. Instead, as Saint Paul wrote:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.5
This is not merely a lyrical passage of the New Testament. The late Fr. Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of Rome, wrote6 that when he spoke the words “so that all beings in the heavens, on earth, and in the underworld should bend the knee at the name of Jesus”7 to a possessed person during an exorcism, even the possessed person was compelled to kneel when our Lord’s name was spoken aloud. Human beings may forget that Jesus’ name has power; devils don’t.
Saint Bernardine of Siena, the Franciscan priest who preached widely in the early fifteenth century, brought an end to deadly violence and improved the moral practices of the faithful throughout the Italian countryside. How did he stop people from killing one another in bitter feuds and committing mortal sins? His favorite topic was devotion to the name of Jesus. Bernardine simply preached about the power of our Lord’s name for hours on end, and he used a monogram formed by the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek—IHS—to convey the message to his barely-literate audiences. One wonders what he would have done if he’d had the power of a TED talk and PowerPoint graphics to make his point.
We don’t need to wonder. He would tell us to spend at least one day a year pondering God’s goodness to us in sending a Savior. The One who redeemed us from slavery to sin and death has a name, and His name is Jesus.
1 Note that there is also an optional memorial in honor of the Most Holy Name of Mary on September 12.
2 Matthew 1:18-21.
3 Exodus 3:2-14.
4 Matthew 1:21.
5 Ephesians 2:9-11.
7 See Philippians 2:6-11.
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