December 29, 2009

Holy Naming

            Christmastide flows into Epiphany as the Christian calendar celebrates on January 1 the Holy Name of Jesus, and then on Sunday, January 3, the Baptism of the Lord. A thread woven throughout these texts is the significance of being named by God. Isaiah 43 speaks of the blessing of those “called by my name”; Psalm 29 celebrates God’s voice that brings all into being and grants identity, i.e., a name, to God’s own. Acts 8: 16 describes that emerging early Christian practice: being baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus and the additional blessing of being immersed in Spirit. The Gospel Lesson, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 portrays two baptismal scenes: the first is John the Baptist who names his successor—“one who is more powerful than I”; the second is the baptism of Jesus himself, in which God names him “the Beloved.” When God names a people or an individual, it is a step in the process of salvation. To be known and claimed by God grants ultimate meaning to all God has created.

            Naming is a practice that God shares with humanity throughout the Bible. Whether it be naming the animals, naming children (even those of calamity), or naming one’s enemies, the process of granting a name to that which is other than oneself, is a profound act of de-centering of self, even self-giving. It is when we refuse to name with respectful specificity that we humiliate others. For example, the generic “they,” “terrorists,” “foreigners,” “insiders,” “outsiders,” “red,” “blue,” ad nauseum fails to grant the dignity that individuals deserve. Tarring with a broad brush always distorts, usually to sustain the misconception or prejudice of the one wielding the brush.

            One of the most memorable of Henri Nouwen’s spiritual writings (and he has many!) is his little book Life of the Beloved. His thesis is that through Christ God calls us each “beloved”; it is not a name reserved only for the Son. Indeed, through him God illumines the encompassing love for us all. There is no need of proving that we are worthy of being loved, for God has joined us to Christ who, like the bread of Eucharist, was taken, blessed, broken, and given. God grants us the dignity of sharing Christ’s name and being the means of holy naming as we voice God’s love for the world.

            Molly T. Marshall

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