My name is Daniel Ethan Harris. My father, David Edwin Harris, was my hero, and I grew up being very proud of being able to scribble DEH on things and convincing myself that then no one would be able to tell whether the item was mine or his. When my wife and I found out we were expecting a son, we knew we wanted to pass on the initials, and he is named David Ethan Harris, after both my dad and me. And yes, the tradition continues–I often see my initials scribbled on things around the house, pointing to the common parts of our identity. It makes me glad every time.
Why is your name what it is? Did your parents just like its sound, or was it given to you as something they hoped would carry meaning throughout your life? As is the case for my son, it might be a name intentionally meant to connect you to the stories of people in previous generations. Or, perhaps, the name itself carries a meaning.
Today is the eighth day of Christmas, a day in which we pay particular attention to the name given to our Messiah. Following Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph took the baby to be circumcised on the eighth day, and he was then "called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
The motivations I mentioned above apply in profound ways to Jesus’ name. He was born into a time when Israel was particularly desperate and expectant for the coming of their messiah, the "anointed one,” the true king who could deliver them from their oppressors. Because of that widespread longing and hope, “Jesus” was a very common name for Jewish boys. It was the equivalent of the older Hebrew name, Joshua, the ancient Jewish hero who led God’s people into the promised land after Moses’ death. The name commanded by the angel, and given to the baby on that eighth day, was certainly meant to connect him to stories of previous generations. Joshua led God’s people into the promised land, where they would have the opportunity to learn to live by God’s law. Jesus would lead them into the promised kind of life–where that law would become written on the people’s hearts.
As meaningful as that is, the connection to a hero of the past wasn’t the full significance of Jesus’ name. Both Joshua and Jesus would come to embody their name’s origin: “The Lord is salvation.” The overarching biblical story of God’s continuing work of delivering people into abundant life came to climaxes in these two men who shared a name.
The short New Testament book of Titus doesn’t get much attention, particularly compared with most of the other things Paul wrote. Even in churches that follow a lectionary calendar of scripture passages (which is designed to cover the themes of the Bible), Paul’s letter to Titus only shows up once: Christmas. Yet that may be a bit surprising, because Titus’ Christmas passage doesn’t mention Jesus’ birth:
"For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”*
So although there isn’t any mention of Bethlehem, hopefully by the eighth day of Christmas, we are becoming accustomed to looking for Christmas in more ways than just the manger. If we train our ears to hear it, we’ll notice Paul shouting the message of Christmas loud and clear in those first phrases: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Grace is God’s gift that grows us, and it appeared! The people with Jesus could see God’s gift, because they laid eyes on him–the one who embodied that name given to him on the eighth day after his birth, “The Lord is salvation”–the one who could bring "salvation to all."
As Paul did so often in his letters, he does in this Christmas passage, essentially saying, “if this is true [that God’s gift, the Lord who saves, appeared], then how does it make sense for us to live? And then he points to several of the kinds of things that happen as Christ’s life takes deeper root in us (in other words, as Christmas continues in us):
“Salvation’s available for everyone! We’re being shown how to turn our backs on a godless, indulgent life, and how to take on a God-filled, God-honoring life. This new life is starting right now, and is whetting our appetites for the glorious day when our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, appears. He offered himself as a sacrifice to free us from a dark, rebellious life into this good, pure life, making us a people he can be proud of, energetic in goodness.”**
Perhaps another way of saying that is, adore him. Take a good, long gaze at this gift of God who came in Bethlehem and delivered us into his kind of life. Then as we let his life grow in us, we will come to adore him all the more.
Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
(From The Book of Common Prayer)
* Titus 2:11-14, NRSV
**This is the same passage from Titus, as translated in The Message.