Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
“What’s in the Name?”
The liturgy of the Fourth Sunday of Advent brings together some of the best-known biblical passages. A theme that links these readings is that of the significance conveyed through one’s name. In the biblical sense, a name is more than a designation, it is a word that both identifies and defines the person. To know someone’s name is equivalent to knowing their identity, and, therefore, their mission and purpose in life. Therefore, naming someone, or a change of a name, are biblically very significant and meaningful events.
To understand the first reading properly we must set Isaiah’s message to king Ahaz in its historical context. It was a time of great distress for all Israelites. Ahaz and his kingdom were facing military aggression from several kings ruling neighbouring states. Their aim was to remove Ahaz, and to seize his kingdom and his army. Initially, they wanted Ahaz to join their common fight against the approaching Assyrians. When Ahaz refused to do so, they turned against him. The Israelite king was terrified, and made preparations for a hopeless fight. As he was inspecting the water supply for the soon-to-be-besieged city, Isaiah met him with a message of consolation. The prophet assured the king that the faithful God of Israel would not allow his beloved city, Jerusalem, to be overrun by its enemies, and that Ahaz is secure on the throne. To reassure him further, the Lord was willing to provide the king with a sign. But Ahaz refused to ask for a sign! This refusal had a reason. Ahaz did not trust God, and had already decided to take matters into his own hands and ensure his own survival without any appeal to God. He decided to appeal for help to the Assyrians. The Assyrians willingly responded to his plea and defeated Ahaz’s enemies. However, the price for their assistance and protection, was steep, Ahaz had to accept Assyrian authority and to become their vassal and servant. This meant relinquishing the autonomy of the kingdom and the adoption of the Assyrian religion, which Ahaz duly did. Following Assyrian instructions, he remodelled the Jerusalem Temple, turning it into an Assyrian temple where their state gods were worshiped. He became an apostate, an idolatrous king. All Israelite religious symbols were removed from the Temple, and God had been effectively evicted from his own temple! Jerusalem became a pagan city and Judah an Assyrian province. Israelites effectively ceased to be the people of Yahweh (cf. 1 Kings 16).
Isaiah’s prophecy about the birth of a child was delivered in this context. The child in question was Ahaz’s own son, soon to be born of his young pregnant wife. This child was to be an ordinary human being destined to serve an extraordinary purpose revealed by a symbolic name given to him – “Emmanuel”, which means, “God is with us.” Indeed, Ahaz, an idolatrous king, had a son whose name was Hezekiah. At the first opportune moment, Hezekiah shook off the yoke of the Assyrian occupation and conducted an extensive religious reform. First, destroying all Assyrian features, he returned Jerusalem Temple to its proper function as the place of worship of the God of Israel. He removed from the land all places where foreign gods were worshiped thus returning the people to their God. Thus, Hezekiah brought back the country and the people to their ancestral faith. The name given to him by Isaiah, “Emmanuel”, perfectly reflects the purpose for which he was born. Through him, God was restored to his Temple, and Israelites were restored to their God. Thanks to Hezekiah, the Emmanuel, the Israelites could once again say, “God is with us.”
The second reading is the opening section of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul’s original Hebrew name, “Saul”, was changed after his encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. This encounter changed Paul’s life. Saul, a persecutor of Christians and an enemy of Christ, became “Paul”, who defined his new identity and the meaning of this name change through three phrases: “a slave of Jesus Christ”, “an apostle” and “set apart for the Gospel of God.” Paul used these three phrases to comprehensively outline his identity and mission. First, Paul belongs to Christ totally, to the point of seeing himself as “a slave” or “a servant.” He considered being a “servant” as a privilege, not a form of forceful and unwanted enslavement. As an “apostle”, he was a man sent on a mission, which defined the way he lived. Paul became an emissary of God, a pilgrim, a man in constant movement to bring the Gospel to the furthest reaches of the ancient world. Finally, he was set apart for the Gospel of God, which defined his life purpose. His fate and entire life were to be focused on the proclamation of God’s Gospel. He had been destined, set apart, for this specific task by God himself. Paul was single-mindedly devoted to carrying out God’s work of spreading the Gospel in the world. Indeed, he became famous for his utter dedication and uncompromising commitment to this mission.
Describing the birth of Jesus, Matthew focused on the naming of this newly born child. Joseph, a righteous man, “adopted” Jesus, knowing him to be conceived by the Holy Spirit. He did this formally by giving the child a name which had been revealed to him by an angel. The child’s name, in Joseph’s native tongue was “Yeshua”, which means “God saves.” This name, which we today translate as “Jesus”, means that this newly born child’s life purpose would be to bringing God’s salvation into the world. Through Jesus, God will save the world! The name says it all. The salvific mission of Jesus would not be an isolated episode in history. This is why Matthew clearly stated that Jesus, in his saving work, will continue what God had already started with Hezekiah, the original Emmanuel. Like Hezekiah, Jesus’ work of salvation will be about restoring the people to their God, and about mending the divine – human relationship broken by sin. He will “save the people from their sin”, which means that Jesus will remove the barrier of sin that prevents humanity from relating to God and being God’s people. While Hezekiah restored the Temple and the people of Israel to God in the distant past, Jesus, the new Emmanuel, will restore the whole humanity to God.
Names carry meanings that define life’s purposes. Hezekiah, Paul and Jesus, each played a very particular and significant role in God’s project of saving the world. Hezekiah ensured that the faith in the one true God did not die in the time of the Assyrian crisis, some 700 years before Jesus’ birth. Jesus, God’s own son, brought salvation to humanity through his cross, where he removed the alienating effects of sin. Paul became an apostle of this good news, caring it out to the whole world, and establishing communities of believers. Those who accepted this message of salvation entered into this new relationship with God through Jesus Christ, they became Christians. This meaningful name describes people who belong to God through Christ. Indeed, Christians are also the ones to whom the Psalmist referred to as those who “receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.”
Names are very important in human history and in every culture. In many traditional societies parents and relatives give a newborn baby not just an abstract name with no meaning, but a name that describes the circumstances of their birth and well wishes for the child. Most names in indigenous languages have a meaning that expresses these sentiments. Other ways in which we see the importance of names is the naming of buildings and roads. Most countries which were colonized by foreign powers, after gaining independence change their names, and rename cities, places and streets, giving them names of persons who led the independence struggle, or other meaningful names that express the identity of the nation. With these new names for towns, buildings and roads the liberators hope to change the history and memory of the people.
Sometimes adults change their names, as is frequently done by athletes and artists who adopt new names to highlight their style, ability or simply to make themselves appealing to their audiences. Some change names to take on those of their heroes. In some cases, people give nicknames to others to express their characters. Many missionaries working were given local names that reflected the essential characteristics of their work and mission. People in love, express their love and affection through affectionate names. Sometimes people give derogatory names to other ethnic groups or persons who are different, which may have negative consequences. Many of us were given names of saints when we were baptized. But how many of us know the stories of the saints whose name we bear, what their names mean for us? In the Bible, names were very important as seen in the readings of today. Without a doubt, naming is a powerful exercise.
In our relationship with God, we often use labels that keep us in a particular place and stop us from getting deeper in our relationship with God. For example, because of an emphasis on sin in our faith, the label “sinner” becomes the first thing we think about in our relationship with God. Indeed, we do not want to get rid of this name because it is part of who we are. But we are also given other names by God and Jesus. Jesus calls us friends, brothers and sisters, beloved and redeemed. God calls us “beloved children”, precious, valuable and those chosen to reflect God’s image. We bear these names and designations that reflect our wonderful call and identity – to be beloved children of God destined for salvation because our Lord is Jesus, “God saves.” These are amazingly transformative names. Many of us may have allowed negative names given to us by others to distort who we truly are because of belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group, class or sex. This is not just about us but also our brothers and sisters in our parish and in our communities. Imagine how the atmosphere in your local Church, family and community would change if we started to use our God-given names as our vocabulary and guide to understanding who we are as individuals and groups. Doing so might change our orientation in dealing, responding and interacting with all people.