1 January 2012 The Feast of the Holy Name
Or, The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. You can look up its history in Wikipedia. You will find that it has been celebrated on many different dates. January 1 is quite possibly the most logical, since in the Jewish tradition of Jesus, baby boys are circumcised and name on the eighth day, and January 1 is the eighth day after Christmas.
Naming is important throughout the Bible. The opening acts of creation are the naming of things, beginning with, “Light!” That is what God says. The “Let there be….” is added to make it “sound better” in English.
Then in Deuteronomy, I believe, God orders the building of a more permanent domicile than the “tent of meeting” or “tabernacle” – a Temple is to be built to exacting specifications: “Then there shall be a place which the LORD your God shall choose to cause his name to dwell there; there shall you bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the heave offering of your hand, and all your choice offerings which you vow unto the LORD.” Deut 12:11
Note the important distinction here. Unlike other temples in the ancient world of the Hebrew people, God does not dwell in the Temple – only God’s name.
As to God’s name, Moses learns this at the burning bush: “4God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ 15God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.” Exodus 3:15-16
That would seem to have settled it, but alas, we humans are not so easily convinced. We have a need to name things ourselves, no doubt a carry-over from our ancestor Adam who was given the task of naming all the creatures in God’s creation in hopes of finding a soul mate. We didn’t stop there, and have multiplied the names of God out toward infinity, which is in itself a rather amazing if not puzzling concept.
The tradition of Jesus has as the most formal name for the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus four naked consonants: roughly YHWH in our alphabet, yodh-he-vav-he in Biblical Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew had no vowel markings. Reading the text correctly depended on oral tradition passing on the pronunciation from one generation to another. Further complications include that when the Masoretic text was formalized with vowel markings (6th – 9th centures ce), those in charge intentionally put the wrong vowels with YHWH since it has long been forbidden by tradition to pronounce the divine name in public. The vowels assigned are for the word Adonai, which also roughly means God for our purposes, but just is not the proper name. And so that is what is read in synagogue when YHWH shows up in the Torah texts. (This was mistakenly corrupted into Jehovah several hundred years ago by gentiles who had no idea what they were doing – Jehovah not being a “real word” at all.) Whenever Jesus says, "I am," his first century constituents would associate him with the great "I Am" of the burning bush.
Why all this background on this Feast of the Holy Name? It is fascinating to note that in less than the first hundred years after Jesus rose from the dead, he was assigned no fewer than 200 different names in New Testament literature! The first, of course, is Jesus, the name told to Mary and the Shepherds by the angel. “The Word,” or in Greek “The Logos,” is perhaps the most mysterious, assigned by the author of the Fourth Gospel in its majestic opening verses.
Emmanuel, or Immanuel, however, stemming from an otherwise obscure verse in the writings of the prophet Isaiah (7:14), may very well be among the most important names given to the child circumcised eight days after his birth. It means quite simply, “God with us.” That, as it turns out, is the sense of the opening verses of John – the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. Jesus is God dwelling among us. This is the scandal of Christianity.
Now the Hindus and the Greeks were quite comfortable with the idea of manifestations of God living among humans, messing with us, cavorting with us and so on. The Hindus and Greeks were and are comfortable with “God” (eg Brahman) having many names, many manifestations. It turns out that when we look more carefully at our tradition, we share this same comfort. It is one of the curses of radical monotheism that we tend to convince ourselves that One God can only have One Name. Just google “Names for Jesus” and you will find over 200 options that accrued in the first century. The Quran lists no fewer than 99 names for the One God, Allah.
Among the names for Jesus is the idea advanced by Isaiah and John that Jesus, the Word, the Word that is with God and is God, is also Immanuel – God with us. Jesus is God. God is with us.
So the Holy Name we honor with this feast is nothing less than the Holy Name of God – Jesus, Immanuel, the Word, I am who I am, Yahweh. We throw “Jesus” around rather casually and indiscriminately. We pretend to know all about him, when in fact God is ultimately unknowable and yet knowable all at once.
I would like to end with this short chapter from Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now as it pertains to God’s Holy Name, YaHWeH, I am who I am, The Great Unspeakable Name:
"This unspeakability has long been recognized, but we now know it goes deeper: formally the word was not spoken at all, but breathed. Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God. This makes it our first and our last word as we enter and leave the world.
"For some years now, I have taught this to contemplative groups in many countries, and it changes people faith and prayer lives in substantial ways. I remind people that there is no Islamic, Christian or Jewish, way of breathing. There is no American, African, or Asian way of breathing. There is no rich or poor way of breathing. The playing field is leveled. . The air of the earth is one and the same air, and this divine wind "blows where it will (John 3:8) - which appears to be everywhere. No one and no religion can control this spirit.
"When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly - breathe. Exactly as some teachers of prayer always said, 'Stay with the breath, attend to your breath': the same breath that was breathed into Adam's nostrils by this Yahweh (Genesis 2: 7); the very breath that Jesus hands over with trust on the cross (John 19:30) and then breathed on us as shalom, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit all at once (John 20:21-23). And isn't it wonderful that breath, wind, spirit, and air are precisely nothing - and yet everything!
"Just keep breathing consciously in this way and you will know that you are connected to humanity from cavemen to cosmonauts, to the entire animal world, even to the trees and plants. And we are now told that the atoms we breathe are physically the same as the stardust from the original Big Bang. Oneness is no longer merely a vague mystical notion, but a scientific fact!"
- Richard Rohr, The Naked Now (Crossroad, New York: 2009) p. 25-26
So this is what The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus offers us: the insight that every breath we take from first to last is “saying” the Holy Name of God. Be attentive to each breath. God is with you. The Word dwells in our very midst. This is not only good news, it is the best news! What more could we possibly want? Amen.
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek
Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills