Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Name is a Sign

Fourth Sunday of Advent Year A

In many cultures, choosing a name for a child is of paramount importance. Hopefully a meaningful name is chosen that the child can live with for the rest of their lives. Choose a wrong name, and your children may end up hating you for the rest of their lives. Often parents consider many things when choosing a name for their child. The choice may be to honour a family member or a close friend, or in admiration for a famous person. The Church’s tradition of naming a child after a saint has often guided our choice, but today, many young parents are often misguided by resorting to the names of celebrities, the new saints of our modern secular pantheon. The naming of a child is beautifully ritualised in the introductory dialogue for the reception of a child during the first part of the Rite of Baptism, where the priest always begin by asking the parents, “What name have you given your child?” Of course, this beautiful rite is purely ceremonial as the name of the child is often printed and stuck to the child’s clothes.

There is a Latin maxim that explains the significance of naming: Nomen est omen; The Name is a Sign. Therefore, a name is more than just a simple accolade or moniker intended for identification, a kind of serial number. A person’s name sometimes, mysteriously, is a sign or omen of what is to come for that person. To name a child is a great privilege and the name carries the hope and promise for what the child will bring to the world. In the culture of the ancient Middle East, a person’s name was essential to personhood. Names are more descriptive in the Hebrew and Greek then they are in English. They often refer to the character, purpose, etc., of the one being named. Your name identified you as an individual, a member of a family or a tribe, a freeman or a slave. Names were often given as representations of the hopes and dreams of the parents or even of recognition of divine assistance. Children were given names by their parents, which were significant to the circumstances of their birth or the destiny of the child.

Today, the Christmas Child whom we are expecting receives a name. The name given to Jesus was not chosen by Mary and Joseph. Although it would usually be right for a father to choose the name of son, as in the case of John the Baptist, this was not to be so in Jesus’ case because as the text indicates, Joseph is not the biological father of the child. Jesus receives his name from On High. His name was chosen by God, His true Father and told to his earthly mother and foster father before the child was born. In fact, long before the child was born in the cave of Bethlehem, God, His true Father, had already named him for us through his angels and prophets. In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we read, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa 9:6)

But perhaps, the most beautiful name is the first name by which he is known – “Jesus”, our English rendering of the Greek, which is in itself the translation of the Hebrew ‘Yeshua’ or ‘Joshua.’ The significance of God’s choice is evident in the name. The Hebrew name of Jesus means ‘The Lord saves’ (CCC 430 – ‘God saves’) or simply ‘Saviour’. Similarly, the word, ‘Christ’, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word, ‘mashiach’, which means ‘Anointed One’ or ‘Messiah’. In either language, his full name, ‘Jesus Christ’ means ‘Saviour, the Anointed One.’

The significance of his name was understood by his early disciples and followers. His name meant that he was anointed by God to bring salvation to the Hebrew people. His name, Joshua, was more than a reference to the ancient hero and judge, Joshua, who led the Hebrew people into the Promised Land. But Jesus here is far greater than Joshua of old. His name meant that he would save the people again, but not with military power. This Joshua would save the people by restoring them to the covenant between God and God’s people, the covenant made with Abraham by God. Jesus Christ was the anointed one sent by God to lead the people into a new salvation. This Messiah would lead the people into a renewed spiritual relationship with God free from oppressive power of sin. When God’s angels told Mary and Joseph to name the child Joshua, God had a special plan for this infant. That plan would be revealed gradually over many years.

Jesus did live up to his name. The little baby grew up to be the Saviour of the world. He saved us from our sins by taking them on himself, carrying them to the cross, and dying for those sins. The one who was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the virgin Mary” went on also to suffer under Pontius Pilate and be crucified, die, and be buried. That saving death was shown to be saving when this same Jesus rose from the dead, thus showing that his death was sufficient to pay for all sins and thereby remove the sting of death. Forgiveness and life come with the death of Jesus, now risen and victorious over death, and that equals eternal salvation for you and me and all who trust in his saving name. He is Jesus—the Lord who saves.

What’s in this name of ‘Jesus’? Everything. To the believer, it is the most beautiful Name in the world because He has saved us from their sins. To the sinner, lost in sin and darkness, this Name pierces that darkness and sin with a message of hope and salvation. He shall save His people from their sins. And that is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “the name of Jesus is at the heart of Christian prayer. All liturgical prayers conclude with the words "through our Lord Jesus Christ". The Hail Mary reaches its high point in the words "blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." The Eastern prayer of the heart, the Jesus Prayer, says: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Many Christians, such as St. Joan of Arc, have died with the one word "Jesus" on their lips.” (CCC 435)

The name chosen by God for this infant born in Bethlehem is a message of hope for God’s people. God has not abandoned humanity. Despite the hardship and sorrow of earthly life, God’s saving grace is always at hand to provide hope, courage and strength for the present and for the future. Yes, friends, this Jesus is your Saviour. His name gives it away. His name, Jesus, gives away all the gifts he has to give you: Salvation. Rescue from sin, death, and the devil. And a safe haven forever in God’s kingdom. In his name, all prayers are made and answered.

Nomen est omen. The name is a sign. The name is Jesus, a sign that this child would be your Saviour. It is with such confidence that St Peter can confidently exclaim that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”(Acts 4:11) and St Paul declare, that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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.” (Phil 2:9-11)   What a name! What a name, indeed!

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