What’s in a Name?


Numbers 6:22-27

Psalm 8

Philippians 2:5-11

Luke 2:15-21

Prayer of the Day: Eternal Father, you gave your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be a sign of our salvation. Plant in every heart the love of the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“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.

What’s in a name? Early on in life my name was not my friend. In every neighborhood somebody, it seems, has to be that one weird kid that gets picked on. I am not sure how that particular honor fell to me. But somehow, it did. One of the many indignities I had to endure as a result was the twisting of my name with suffixes like “cotton tail,” “pumpkin eater” and “rabbit.” Those were the milder epitaphs. My name also unfortunately lent itself to a number of obscene permutations denoting the male genitals. Exasperated, I one day asked my Mom, “How come you had to name me Peter!” Her reply stuck with me my whole life.

“Your Dad and me named you Peter after Jesus’ disciple,” said Mom. “The one he trusted the most and who became a bold leader of the early church. He was also the disciple who let Jesus down when Jesus needed him most. I hope that name will keep you humble in your success and confident enough in God’s forgiveness to pick yourself up when you fail and try again.” I can’t honestly say that I came away from that exchange with a new found love for my name. I still longed to be John, Bill or anyone else with a ridicule resistant name. But I never forgot what Mom said to me about my name and, over time, it helped to shape my thinking about God as the giver of the second chance. I don’t doubt that at some point Mary, Joseph or perhaps both of them had a similar conversation with Jesus about his name, where it came from and why it landed on him.

It is a great power God has given to us human beings, the power to name. It was first given to Adam at the dawn of creation. Genesis 2:19. The names we give our children, the names of our towns, city streets and landmark buildings say a lot about who we are, what we believe and the things we value. They spell out our relationships to others and connect us to prior generations. Names can be a source of pride and self esteem. They can inspire us to become more than ever imagined we could be.

Sadly, that is only half the story. The power of naming can also be destructive. During my high school years, getting stuck with a name like “homo,” “fag” or “queer” made you a target for cruel and relentless teasing, harassment, humiliation and even violence. Racial epitaphs like the “N word” dehumanize whole groups of people. Labeling someone a “right winger,” “snowflake,” “communist” or “radical” boxes them into a narrow prison of one’s own preconceived stereotypes, making it impossible to listen to or hear what they are really saying. Naming becomes a demonic power when it is used to divide and create hostility rather than to heal and unite. I believe that our lessons for this Sunday are calling us to reclaim the divine power of naming for the holy cause of God’s just, righteous and compassionate reign.

I know of a pastor who greats his congregation with the words, “Good morning beautiful children of God.” The first time I heard it, it struck me as just a bit too shmaltzy. On further reflection, however, I believe that, notwithstanding my own liturgical prejudices, he is right on target. Saint Paul could wax every bit as eloquently about the love he had for his congregations, to whom he often referred as his “children.” Of course, we know that Paul’s congregations were often anything but beautiful. The church in Corinth is a case in point, riven as it was with power struggles, factionalism, sex scandals, doctrinal disputes and money issues. Yet Paul can name this congregation the Body of Christ. “Now you are,” says Paul, “the Body of Christ.” Not, “you should be the Body of Christ” or “maybe someday you will be the Body of Christ-if you ever manage to get your act together.” Paul says, present indicative, to this sad puppy of a church, “You are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27.

There is a particularly striking passage from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind Through the Door that I think captures the power of naming. For those of you unfamiliar with that remarkable young adult novel, the protagonist Meg seeks to uncover the cause of her younger brother, Charles’ critical illness. She and her boyfriend Calvin join forces with a friendly cherubim named Progo in facing a series of ordeals, completion of which will lead them to the answer they seek. Progo, the cherubim, suggests to Meg that she might have been called to be a Namer.

“Well, then, if I’m a Namer, what does that mean? What does a Namer do?”

The [cherubim’s] wings drew together, the eyes closed, singly, and then in groups, until all were shut. Small puffs of mist-like smoke rose, swirled about him. “When I was memorizing the names of stars, part of the purpose was to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be. That’s basically a Namer’s job. Maybe you’re supposed to make earthlings feel more human.”[1]

God is the ultimate name giver. God named Abraham and Sarah. God named Israel. God names each one of us in baptism, “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy. I Peter 2:9-10.

Naming is the way in which God holds the world together against all the forces of evil that would rip it apart. Naming is a powerful way of reminding us that we are better than what we too often imagine. It is important, I believe, to use this great God-given power in a constructive way wherever and whenever we can. Those obligatory name tags grocery store employees are compelled to wear make this easy. It is important to tell the cashier, “Thanks, Kim. Have great holiday.” It is important to say, “Thanks, Jim for bagging.” Calling people by name lets them know that we recognize their humanity. It acknowledges that these individuals are not simply cogs in the wheels of commerce, but people with stories, connections and lives that matter. Naming these people lets them know that the work they do is important and appreciated. It becomes harder to hate when you know a person’s name. Harder still when you begin to understand the meaning of that name. Naming builds bridges across borders, between enemies and over seemingly irreconcilable differences. There is so very much in a name!

Here is a poem by Helen Hoyt about the power of calling one by name.


My name is beautiful to me when you say it;

A new name.

No one ever had this name before:

Your voice changes it.

It is a new name,


Never till now spoken, or any touch laid on it.

Source: Poetry, (December 1918). Helen Hoyt (1887-1972) was born in Norwalk, Connecticut. She attended Miss Baird’s School for Girls in Norwalk, Connecticut and later earned an A.B. at Barnard College. In 1921, she married fellow poet William Whittingham Lyman Jr. Early in her career, Hoyt was an Associate Editor of the journal Poetry. Several of her articles and poems were published within that magazine from 1913 to 1936. Hoyt also edited the September 1916 edition of Others: A Magazine of the New Verse. Other magazines to publish her work include The Egoist and The Masses. In addition to her own collections, her work has also been published in notable anthologies of her times, including The New Poetry: An Anthology (1917), The Second Book of Modern Verse (1920), Silver Pennies: Modern Poems for Boys and Girls (1925), May Days (1926) and The Best Poems of 1931. You can find out more about Helen Hoyt and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation web site.

[1] L’Engle, Madeleine, A Wind Through the Door, (c. 1973 by Crosswicks, Ltd.) p. 78.

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