The other name for Jan. 1

Published 4:51 pm Monday, December 30, 2019

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By Scott Baker

Abraham means “ancestor of many.” Sarah means “princess.” Moses means “to draw out.” Israel means either “he struggles with God” or “God struggles.” So, if one’s etymological skills are keen enough, at least from an Old Testament point of view, one can figure out the purpose of a particular matriarch or patriarch simply by reading her/his name. Of course, Abraham did indeed become the father of many. Moses, after some trials and tribulations, did draw the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the land of promise. And Israel, Jacob’s other name given to him as he wrestled with God at Peniel, was given the moniker which would be indicative of all of his descendents’ relationship with God. So, with all of this said, it is safe to say names mean much more than simply that by which one is called.

Names mean not only who one is, but also what one does. Today we simply say this is part and parcel to one’s identity. One’s identity has as much to do with what she/he does as it has to do with what she/he is called. Smith, Cartwright, Brewer or Cooper all fine last names, which have their roots in professions. Long ago, these individuals who worked at these professions simply came to be associated with them so much so, that, what they did defined who they were — literally.

Identity means character, uniqueness and individuality. And in our society, much of who we are and how we are perceived hasn’t changed all that much from antiquity. Upon meeting someone, inevitably we will answer within the first three questions what we do. It is a means by which we convey to others components of our identity. In short, where we spend the majority of our time and energy defines who we are as human beings. Who knows, perhaps in a couple hundred years’ time, someone may have the last name of byte, or processor.

If biblical names are so important in describing what purposes these august individuals served, then Jan. 1, or the Feast of Holy Name, certainly is important. We read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that Jesus was given the name above all names. And Jesus’ name means, “He saves.” It is, of course, a rendition of the Hebrew name Joshua. And if names impart identity, then Jesus’ identity is living into the fullness of his name — animating it and turning a concept like salvation into a living, breathing being.

Mary and Joseph knew none of this as they stood in the Temple obediently presenting their first-born child for the rite of circumcision. They didn’t know what would happen 30 some-odd years later. They had no way of knowing how their son, born in such obscurity, would live into his name. How he would be the one on whose shoulders all the hopes of all the patriarch and matriarch had placed for millennia before him. All they knew was what Gabriel told them, that the child would be called Jesus.

We get so distracted in the New Year’s resolutions and our hopes for the year that lies before us that we tend to forget that we begin the year celebrating him who saves. If you think about it, by commemorating The Feast of Holy Name, we couldn’t start the year off on any better foot.

THE REV. SCOTT BAKER is the rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Franklin. Contact him at 562-4542.