The Feast of the Holy Name

In the recent Marvel series “Loki,” a character refers to the master of the universe as “He Who Remains.” That is all: the one who out-endures all else.

In other fiction, the Supreme Being is often portrayed as saying something like this: “People have called me many names: Baal, Brahman, Jehovah, Allah…”—as if it really doesn’t matter.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. What a difference a name makes.

I’ll be teaching my course on World Religions again soon at Crandall University. I’ve been teaching world religions for several decades now, and as I introduce students to such divinities as Brahman, Vishnu, Devi, the Unmoved Mover, Zeus, T’ian, Odin, Amaterasu, Allah, and, my personal favourite, Baxbakwalanuksiwae (don’t ask), I inwardly rejoice in a very different name: Jesus.

Names, properly chosen, sum up the person named. Throughout the Bible people are named, or renamed, to indicate their part in God’s plan. Sarah is indeed a princess, and Abraham becomes the father of a multitude. Israel wrestles with God—over and over. James and John do keep making loud noises. And Paul, the mightiest of missionaries, is truly humble “in view of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8).

When God’s messenger told the parents of his incarnate Son to name the child a particular name, God passed over all the grand options. This Son was named according to his driving purpose, his literal raison d’être: “Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.”

Jesus means simply “salvation,” which for Hebrews would mean “God saves,” or, perhaps, “Please save us, God!”

Jesus doesn’t mean “Impressive Lord in front of whom you had better bow down.” That’s what “Allah” means. Jesus doesn’t mean “The Structuring Principle of the Universe.” That’s what “Logos” means. Jesus doesn’t mean “The Creator and Destroyer of All.” That’s what “Shiva” means. 

Jesus means this: God saves. The Supreme Being doesn’t remain aloof, let alone furiously demanding human homage. The Creator of all reaches down to become the Saviour of all. In fact, he names himself “Saviour”—as if that is God’s Main Thing, God’s central trait, God’s defining characteristic.

One finds oneself, as in a dream, suddenly walking into a vast temple. Huge choirs sing strange sounds. Candles and torches provide dim illumination. Front and centre is a towering figure, the God. 

What sort of deity will it be? How should you act? What is your destiny in the presence of this lord? 

Your happiness, your health, your very existence hangs in the balance as the God seems to notice you and turns the divine visage toward you. And someone suddenly appears at your side. And he says one amazing word.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds 
in a believer’s ear! 
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, 
and drives away our fear. 

It makes the wounded spirit whole 
and calms the troubled breast; 
’tis manna to the hungry soul, 
and to the weary, rest. 

O Jesus, shepherd, guardian, friend, 
my Prophet, Priest, and King, 
my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End, 
accept the praise I bring. 

How weak the effort of my heart, 
how cold my warmest thought; 
but when I see you as you are, 
I’ll praise you as I ought. 

Till then I would your love proclaim 
with every fleeting breath; 
and may the music of your name 
refresh my soul in death.

—John Newton

“And the Word Was Made Flesh…”

Today is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist. You will appreciate that I have some affinity with and affection for a Christian writer whose name I bear. But I want to draw attention to John as a non-writer today.

The Gospel bearing his name begins as none of the other three do: with an extended theological reflection on Jesus as the Word of God. John sustains this marvelous meditation for just a few verses, then mixes it in with the career and testimony of John the Baptist until verse eighteen—and then drops the whole “Logos” thing for the rest of the book.

John clearly aimed to glorify his Lord in the loftiest terms available in the Hellenistic world, and he did. Christians have marveled and mused and meditated on these verses ever since. But he couldn’t keep it going.

Why not? Well, for one thing, John was a fisherman by trade. Not a lot in his background to work with in producing extended disquisitions on the most abstract and general themes in the highest intellectual reaches of his culture. 

For another thing, however, John wisely follows the old writer’s workshop dictum: “Write what you know.” John begins his first epistle with, yes, a brief reference to the Word, but then focuses on what he knows:

“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard” (I John 1:1-3).

John was overwhelmed by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He tells us at the end of his Gospel that “there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Too much to say! So he says what he knows, and focuses on that which will reveal the heart of the good news.

Fisherman John was in good company in writing what he could and then stopping. One of the greatest minds the Christian Church has ever produced, that of Thomas Aquinas, encountered God in prayer one day so powerfully that he stopped writing his massive summary of doctrine, the Summa Theologica. “All that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.”

A few centuries later another Christian genius, the scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal who gave us one of the classics of Christianity—and mere notes toward a book he never got to write—the Pensées, encountered God in prayer and could only mutter, “From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past twelve … FIRE … God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not of the philosophers and savants. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.”

The Word so exceeds our words!

Let us write theology with the greatest diligence and creativity we can muster. Let us preach with accuracy and eloquence. Let us share the gospel with precision and vivacity.

Let us not, however, forget that the Lord Jesus, the Word of God, has made us his Words to the world (John 15:27). As Paul says about the Corinthians, “You are our letter,” you yourselves are the communication of God.

In these twelve days of Christmas, therefore, may we be like John, who wrote so splendidly about the Incarnation only to exhort his readers, “Let’s not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (I John 3:18).

As my friend Carolyn Arends reminds us, Emmanuel is indeed “God with us,” and we praise him at Christmastime “now in flesh appearing”—but so we, too, are the Word made flesh.

O come, let us adore him, and declare the Word as much as we can—using words, as Francis of Assissi said, when necessary.

(Here’s the video of Carolyn’s terrific song.)

On the Feast of Stephen

Today is the Feast of St. Stephen, one of the two sad days during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Unlike the other sad day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec 28) commemorating Herod’s slaughter of anyone who might rival him, this day is bittersweet. For St Stephen, depicted for us in Acts 6 & 7, is a man full of the Holy Spirit who speaks boldly for the Jesus at the heart of this season. And his witness is so bold that he becomes the first, or one of the first, martyrs of the small early Christian community (“martyr” originally meant just “witness”).

Thus do death and life, violence and peace, falsity and truth, chaos and shalom appear and contend again and again in the Christian Story, and throughout this season of Advent and Christmas. However the powers of commerce attempt to sentimentalize this time into mere sugar and fat dressed up in colour and light, there courses through it the thick force of Real Life, pulling us away from happy distraction to the Centre, the Core, the Christ who quietly confronts us from the manger.

Those who understand Christmas properly become like Stephen. And many throughout the ages and around the world to this day do, indeed, end up like Stephen.

Except, of course—as St. Stephen and St. Nicholas and Good King Wenceslas would smilingly agree—that isn’t the end.

Happy Boxing Day, yes, but far, far more: have a blessed Feast of Stephen.