Today is a day that goes by many names. It is, of course, New Year’s Day. It is also ‘January 1, 2023’, and a ‘Sunday.’ In medieval Europe, it was called ‘the Feast of Fools.’ In Roman Catholic circles, today can be called ‘the Solemnity of Mary’, and in the Eastern Church it’s the Feast of St. Basil the Great. But being the eighth day after Christmas, it is also the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, and the Feast of the Naming of Jesus. And so, on this day of many names, on which we commemorate the naming of Jesus, it seems fitting to reflect briefly on names.
In the contemporary West, names are mostly considered labels. My brother, for example, is named ‘Scott,’ which means, as one might expect, ‘from Scotland’, despite the fact that my family does not have any Scottish heritage. But in many cultures, a name is something far more than a label. It can be a statement about the circumstances surrounding a child’s birth, an intuition about the child’s character, or a prayer for the child’s life. This is certainly the pattern we see in the ancient Hebrew culture reflected in the Bible. Isaac, for example, means ‘he laughs’, referring to his parents’ incredulity at God’s promise; similarly, Genesis says that Jacob was so named because he was born ‘grasping the heel’ of his older twin Esau (whose name seems to mean ‘hairy’, and who also went by Edom, which meant ‘red’). A name could also be changed to reflect a change in status or vocation. Hence Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, ‘father of many’ and Jacob’s was changed to Israel, ‘he wrestles with God’. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the symbolic naming of children featured prominently in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, with Hosea’s children being named Lo-ruhamah (‘not pitied’) and Lo-ammi (‘not my people’) as indications of God’s judgment on the Kingdom of Israel, and Isaiah’s son named Maher-shalal-hash-baz, ‘hurry to the plunder’. And, of course, most famously, Isaiah also prophesies of the coming child named Immanu-el, ‘God with us’.
And Immanu-el brings us to today, the feast of the Naming of Jesus. This fluidity of Biblical naming is probably why Christians have never had a problem with the fact that the child we believe to be the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy was not named Immanu-el (though we certainly understand that he embodied the meaning of this name!) but rather Jesus, itself a name rich in history and meaning, derived from the Hebrew name Yehoshua (Joshua), ‘the LORD saves’.
But, with today being the start of a new year, I’m also reminded that it is not only people or places that are named, but time too. Years tend to be named from important cultural watersheds — like the reigns of kings or in years after important religious events. Months are often named after the seasonal cycle (e.g., in the Indigenous cultures of my part of the world there were months named after strawberries, corn, and fish; or our month ‘March’ derives from the Roman god of war, Mars, marking the start of military campaigning). And days of the week also have their names: in English they are vestiges of our pre-Christian, Germanic religious history, with days named after the Sun and Moon, Odin, Thor, and Freya, but in many European languages, there are days named for the liturgical cycle, such as Friday being the Day of Preparation, Saturday being the Sabbath, and Sunday being the Lord’s Day.
There is no deep point to be made here. Things have names, and we can, for ourselves at least, be intentional about what we name them and any meaning we choose to give them. As someone who is big on meaning-making, I say lean into it. And so, as we start the new year, I’m wondering what it might be like to ‘name’ it. What name would you give to 2023? Where are you in life right now? Who is God to you in this season? What is your prayer for the year?
These are the questions I’m pondering this morning, and I invite you to do the same.
Regardless of what you choose to name this time, may God-With-Us, the One-Who-Is, Who-Saves, bless you and keep you as you begin the year.