To the Name that brings Salvation
Honour, worship, laud we pay.
— John Mason Neale
Aelfric of Eynsham, an Anglo-Saxon monk around the turn of the first millennium, thought January 1 a poor choice for New Year’s Day because it lacked the inherent significance worthy of time’s annual renewal. The birthday of Jesus on December 25, or late March, when the land starts to wake from Winter’s sleep, seemed more propitious, and were each widely observed in the Middle Ages as the year’s true beginning. In the Church calendar, the year began in late autumn, on the First Sunday of Advent. In Britain, the First of January did not become the officially accepted New Year’s Day until 1752.
As Eleanor Parker explains in Winters in the World, her charming study of early English understandings of the seasons, monastic writers like Aelfric “wanted to read and interpret the natural world, to learn to recognize the meaning God had planted in it. They saw time and the seasons, from the very first day of the world, as carefully arranged by God with method and purpose—so they believed it should be possible to organize the calendar not according to the randomness of custom and inherited tradition, but in a way that reflected that divine plan.” [i]
But January 1 did mark a singular event in the life of Jesus. As the octave, or eighth day of Christmas, it was the date of the Christ Child’s circumcision, based on Luke’s description of the timing (“When the eighth day came …”— Luke 2:21). The Feast of the Circumcision was celebrated in Spain and Gaul as early as the 6thcentury, but Rome, reluctant to associate with the chaotic excess of popular New Year celebrations, waited until the 11th century to adopt the feast. While modernity has found the circumcision of Jesus a peculiar choice for liturgical celebration (it was finally suppressed in the Roman Catholic calendar revisions of 1969), the Middle Ages saw significance in the first shedding of the Savior’s sacred blood. It not only proved his fully vulnerable humanity; it also foreshadowed the sacrificial offering of Calvary.
St. Paul’s spiritualization of the physical ritual, making it an interior, metaphorical image of severing ourselves from the old body of death (“circumcision of the heart”—Romans 2:29), helped perpetuate the liturgical observance beyond the Middle Ages, but our own era has found more profitable meaning in the other thing that happened on the octave of the Nativity: Jesus got his name.
When the eighth day had come and the child was to be circumcised, they gave him the name Jesus, the name the angel had given him before his conception (Luke 2:21).
The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on various dates in early January, but the Episcopal calendar, following Luke’s account, puts it properly on New Year’s Day. And while many of us usually spend January 1 watching the Rose Parade and bowl games instead of keeping the sacred feast, whenever the year begins on a Sunday, the secular traditions are transferred to January 2, leaving Episcopalians free to gather on January 1 to observe Holy Name.
Although the Hebrew name “Yeshua” (“Iesus” in the 4th-century Latin Bible, becoming “Jesus” in the 17th-century Geneva Bible) was fairly common in 1st-century Palestine, it was given special weight by divine authority (both Mary and Joseph were told by God’s messenger, “You must name him Jesus.”) And its literal meaning, “Yahweh is salvation,” became fully embodied and expressed in the life, death and resurrection of the son of Mary. Jesus is the one who saves.
St. Paul defined Christians as “those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 1:2). The whole New Testament attributed great power to the name of Jesus. The first Christians prayed in his name (John 14:14), baptized in his name (Romans 6:3), and healed in his name (Acts 3:6). The Prologue to the Fourth Gospel declares that “to all that received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12). And in Paul’s famous tribute in Philippians, no other name can compare:
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2: 9-11),
Medieval theologians sang exuberant praises of the Holy Name. St. Bernard wrote: “The name Jesus is food. Are you not strengthened every time you recall it? What else builds up the spirit of the one pondering it as this name does? What so refreshed the tired heart, strengthens the virtues, fosters chaste loves?” Richard of St. Victor said that “Jesus is a sweet name, a name of delight, a name that comforts the sinner, a name of blessed hope. Therefore Jesus, be to me Jesus!” And Peter of Ravenna equated the name with the effects of salvation: “You shall call his name Jesus—the name that gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, walking to the lame, speech to the mute, life to the dead; and the power of this name drove all the might of the devil from the bodies of the possessed.” [ii]
Eastern Christianity developed a repetitive recitation of the Holy Name into the transformative practice of centering prayer.[iii] And countless hymn writers have hailed “the power of Jesus’ name.”
John Newton (1725-1807), author of “Amazing Grace,” celebrated the Holy Name’s healing power:
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.[iv]
Even at our end, he believed, “the music of thy name” will “refresh my soul in death.” An expanded list of the Name’s effects was given by John Mason Neale (1818-1866):
Name of gladness, Name of pleasure,
By the tongue ineffable,
Name of sweetness passing measure,
To the ear delectable.
‘Tis our safeguard and our treasure,
‘Tis our help ‘gainst sin and hell.
‘Tis the Name for adoration,
‘Tis the Name of victory;
‘Tis the Name for meditation
In the vale of misery:
‘Tis the Name for veneration
By the Citizens on high.
‘Tis the Name that whoso preaches
Finds its music in his ear:
‘Tis the Name that whoso teaches
Finds more sweet than honey’s cheer …[v]
Such praises of the Holy Name do not mistake its invocation as a magic charm detached from any concrete meaning. When we say “Jesus” with prayerful, sacred attention, we call up a vast array of transformative forces, from the salvific events of the gospels to the abiding energies of divine presence. As a young Palestinian woman put it to me once, in her imperfect but brilliantly accurate English:
“Jesus is a big word. You can never come to the end of it.”
Episcopal theologian William Porcher Dubose (1836-1918) made the same point this way:
“Jesus Christ is to me, not a name, or a memory or tradition, nor an idea or sentiment, nor a personification, but a living and personal reality, presence, and power. He is God for me, to me, in me, and myself in God … And ‘in His name’ means ‘in Him,’ and ‘in Him’ means ‘in his death and resurrection.’” [vi]
The attempt to grasp the reality represented by the Holy Name is vividly imagined by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) in the figure of Jacob wrestling with the Divine stranger whose name he struggles to know:
Come, O thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see! …
I need not tell thee who I am,
My misery or sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on thy hands, and read it there.
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.…
Art thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold:
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.…
The wrestling with the nameless Transcendent continues, and even though its ungraspable essence departs with the dawn, there is a personal, relatable presence that remains, and can be named.
I know thee, Savior, who thou art—
Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend.
Nor wilt thou with the night depart,
But stay, and love me to the end …
And in this abiding, enfolding presence, the poet discovers yet another name behind (within?) the name of Jesus. It is the Holy Name above all others:
Thy nature, and thy name, is LOVE. [vii]
[i] Eleanor Parker, Winters in the World: A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year (London: Reaktion Books, 2022), 76.
[ii] The quotations are cited in the 13th-century collection by Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, Volume 1, trans. William Granger Ryan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 73.
[iii] The “Jesus Prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me) is often synchronized in its repetitions with a pattern of slow, deep breathing.
[iv] John Newton, “The Name of Jesus.”
[v] John Mason Neale, “The Name of Jesus.”
[vi] Wiliam Porcher Dubose, The Reason of Life (London 1911), cited in Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, & Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 493.
[vii] Charles Wesley, “Wrestling Jacob.” The original biblical story is in Genesis 32:24-33.