The children were in a furious battle in the backyard. I could hear them yelling at each other as I sat on the porch, trying to determine whether I could finish my cup of coffee or if I needed to insert myself. Then my four year old daughter said to her six year old brother, “You’re a doody-head and I hate you!”
In the moment, I didn’t know which was more disturbing, the nasty name or the expression of hatred. But over time, I’ve come to respect the importance of getting strong emotions out, and the power of names to shape who we are and what we will become. Names worry me more than an expression of negative emotion.
Fortunately, my son who was called that bad name did not, in fact, turn into a doody-head. He was and is a sweetheart. But a later name did stick, and have unfortunate results. A teacher called him dumb when he did badly at an assignment. It affected his attitude toward school for many years.
We think about it when we name our own children, don’t we? I doubt anyone here would name their child Qaddafi, or Adolph, or Idi Amin. We know that bearing the name of a dictator or a genocidal maniac would scar a child. It would affect how he or she saw themselves, as it would certainly affect teachers and parents of playmates. Who would want their child to play with little Qaddafi?
Names have power. They shape us, they identify us, they describe our purpose in life.
The ancient Israelites understood this. They gave names with meanings. Think of Nathaniel – gift from God. Think of Samuel – God has heard. Think of Micah – comfort. Think of Ezekiel – God will judge. Think of Job – his name means “oppressed.” Names have power to identify us, don’t they?
There is a reason why God had Adam name all the animals…if Adam was to have dominion over them, both power and responsibility, he had to have a sense of connection, a deep and abiding understanding of who or what they were and how they participated in the world. And so Adam named them, we are told, although I wonder how he came up with the name “platypus” or “wombat” or “yellow-bellied sapsucker.”
You will recall that in the Old Testament reading this morning, God instructs Aaron in how to bless the people, those famous words called the Aaronic blessing: The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace….and why such words? Because, the Lord says, the words will put God’s name upon the Israelites. They will not simply be named Amos and Rebecca and Napthali, they will be named God’s people.
Names have power.
Jacob, that troublemaking twin, was given a name at birth that meant “heel holder,” because when he and his twin Esau were born, Jacob was holding Esau’s heel. It was a name that represented the endless battle between these two twins, Jacob always trying to get the better of Esau, tricking him out of his inheritance and such. But when Jacob was an adult, finally realizing how badly he had behaved and struggling to figure out how to make things right, God renamed him. And what was his new name? Israel. Israel, the name that means “God prevails.” Jacob, now Israel, the father of twelve sons whose offspring would form the twelve tribes of Israel, the great nation of Israel out of which Jesus was born.
A name that transformed Jacob from a merely troublesome trickster into a father of nations.
Names have power to make us or break us.
And so we come to today’s gospel.
It begins with a story we’ve already heard, the story of the shepherds hearing about the birth of the baby from the angel and going to visit him. And them the shepherds go back into town and tell everyone what has happened to them. Yes, we know this part of the story.
And then we hear something we haven’t heard before: the time comes for the baby’s circumcision and naming ceremony. It is eight days after the baby’s birth. Why eight days? Why not wait until the child is old enough to decide for himself? Why not do it sooner? Some have speculated that this is because infant mortality was so high in those days, most often in the first week, so they wanted to be sure the baby would survive that first week. But a more beautiful and theologically rich explanation is offered by Rabbi Yisroel Cottar: “We are born Jews. It is not a project we rationally decide to undertake. Our covenant with G‑d is super-rational. It does not go away in moments when our minds tell us otherwise. We do not always comprehend the reasons behind the [commandments]. [According to the mystical writings, the] number seven represents nature and that which is finite. Seven days in the week, seven days of creation, and seven human faculties. Eight represents the super-rational and the infinite. The miraculous as opposed to natural. Belief as opposed to comprehension. And so, a baby is given is [circumcision] on the eighth day. He is entering a religion founded upon faith, whose survival is miraculous, and whose potential in the world is infinite.”
And with the circumcision comes the naming for this newborn boy. And once again, we see the power of a name.
What name is this child given? Jesus, Yeshua, which means Salvation. Talk about a powerful name! And it was not a name that the parents picked out as we do for our own children, it is a name hand-delivered by the angel Gabriel (a name which means “God is my strength”). It is God who does the naming, not Mary and Joseph, because God knows this baby’s purpose in a troubled world.
By naming the child in this traditionally Jewish ritual, God and the child’s earthly parents affirm what this child is meant to do. He will be the salvation of the world, although in this moment Mary and Joseph may not know how this will play out.
Names have power to identify, to and even to show what the future holds, if only in the simplest of terms.
So Jesus is circumcised, as all Jewish boy babies are circumcised on the eighth day following their births, following the tradition of the circumcision of Isaac. And he is given a name that reminds his parents and all who meet him what and who he is…salvation. But before he is even given this particular name, he carries another, that one that was given when Aaron was taught that blessing…he is a part of the people of God. A special part, to be sure, as God’s only Son, but still a part of the people of God.
And this is what we take from this talk of names. They are powerful. They shape us. Our name as God blessed us as his people in Aaron’s time still gives us a sense of beloved belonging to the one who created us. And one particular name gives us hope, the name of Jesus, who is salvation.
Our names these days may not carry as much power as in ancient times. We don’t always remember that “Douglas” means “black water,” or “Sandra” means “defending men.” We might not know that “Frederick” means “peaceful ruler” or “Bertha” means “bright.”
But we do know one thing: the One who was named “Salvation” has indeed done that. His name has the power to identify who and what he is. We are the beneficiaries of his name and his life and his death, because we have already been named, each and every one of us, as beloved members of the people of the God who created us. Our lives have been shaped by our own names and the names bestowed upon us by God, but especially by the one who was named by God himself, as God’s own son, our salvation.
Names do have power to teach, to show and to shape. All we have to do is hear the name of Jesus, that name “salvation,” and we are transformed once again by the holy name and the holy One who bore it.