The Most Holy Name
“Unite my heart to fear your name” ~ Psalm 86:11
Bernadine of Siena moved the world with three letters. It was a time of political rivalry and warring factions. Bernadine travelled with a purpose, to bring peace, and he accomplished this purpose by one means. He carried before him always the letters ‘IHS’ – the first three letters of the Greek, ‘IHΣΟΥΣ’, Jesus Christ. Before the Name of God, painted boldly, surrounded by rays on a wooden tablet, the sick were cured and the strife ceased. The Name of Jesus is a name with power and healing. We need to meditate on this name, to breathe it, and to kindle in our hearts a most profound devotion to the Most Holy Name of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel is the shortest gospel reading in the whole year.
“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).
We take the Scriptures very seriously here. At the start of Mass, the priest and servers pray a series of petitions to prepare us to even pronounce their words. Then, after a lot of bowing, incense, and a procession, we read the Scriptures right in the midst of the congregation. After all that build up, it might seem strange to read only one verse. Yet, the Church has prescribed this single verse today to mark its importance.
“He was called Jesus.”
It is hard for us, modern Americans, to understand the importance of a name. That old phrase, “it’s the thought that counts,” says a lot about our culture. We value intentions and ideas, but we do not value the physical world. Yes, we are consumers. We like using stuff, but that is different than valuing stuff – i.e. creation or matter. Here is an example. The modern Christian might appreciate an icon because of its beauty or symbolic importance. The Orthodox Christian values an icon because it is intrinsically, physically, holy. Not only does it remind us of heaven, this picture of paint and wood, itself, is a little bit of heaven. A modern Christian might appreciate a relic for historical purposes. An Orthodox Christian bows down and venerates the relic, because he understands that it is, itself, spiritual and sanctifying. The symbol conveys what is being symbolized.
Names are no different. When a Jew reads the Genesis account of Adam naming the animals, it fills him with awe. Adam was not simply giving the animals nicknames, the way we might name a dog or cat. By naming the animal, Adam was defining its reality. He was giving it existence, or at least, a more profound level of existence. A name is power. Even today, Orthodox Jewish newspapers dare not to even spell out the whole word, “God.” You can mention God’s attributes. You can use adjectives to describe God. Yet, the good Jew would not dare to mention God by name. To have someone’s name is to possess a sort of intimacy with Him. Yet, to the Jew, God is far too cosmic and majestic for us to claim that kind of intimacy.
All that changed on Christmas morning. When Jesus Christ was born, all the majesty of heaven poured into one tiny child. The incarnation means everything that is Jesus is charged with God. His name is no exception. The scriptures pronounce the Name of Christ with utmost reverence.
“God has given him a name which is above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” (Phil 2:9-10).
“There is no other name under heaven given to men whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
St. John of Kronstadt once said: “The Name of the Lord is the Lord Himself." When we call on Jesus, He is present.
Some time ago, a young girl was trapped in all the pits of secular adolescents. She had fallen in with the wrong crowd. She started using drugs and then dabbling with the occult. After a vicious cycle of self-hate and depression, she found herself pulled ever deeper into it. She was stuck. One night, she found herself in an out-of-body experience engulfed in horrible darkness, and something from deep within her called, “Jesus help me.” Immediately, she felt a sweet presence and all the darkness vanished. She prayed, “Jesus, where have you been? Why have you never helped me?” A voice returned, “Daughter, why did you never call out?” God is waiting for us to reach out to Him, and he has given us a powerful means, the Name of Jesus.
Psalm 86:11 prays: “Unite my heart to fear your name.” The full verse reads: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name.” The path of God is tied up with reverence for the Holy Name. “Unite my heart” – Lebābî yahêd (in Hebrew) – literally: bring everything within me, all my thoughts and affections, together around this one focus, your Holy Name.
“Do you happen to have a moment free? Do not waste it in idleness! Do not waste it by using it for some impracticable and fatuous castle-building, or for some vain and trivial employment! Use it for the practice of the Jesus Prayer.”
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov urged this to all his spiritual children, and his words are echoed by all the saints and Scriptures. What do we need to do this year, if nothing else? We have to build a habit of praying the Holy Name. Bernadine of Siena healed the crippled with the Name of Jesus. We too will find healing in our problems by turning to the Name. May God give us strength to find reverence for His Most Holy Name.