Thursday, January 1, 2009

All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name

Readings: The Holy Name, Year B

In the ancient Middle East, one's name had special significance. Pharoahs of Egypt had their names carved everywhere, because the preservation of their name was part of insuring their immortality. Putting your name on something was a way of making it your own. Giving someone your true name was the equivalent of giving them your special confidence or trust.

The God of the Hebrew Bible was not promiscuous with His Name. After using several aliases, like El Shaddai, God reveals His Name to Moses, speaking out of a "burning" bush near a place called YHU (probably pronounced "Yahoo," later re-named Midian). The Name, of which we have only the consonants YHWH may have been pronounced "Yahweh." No one knows. The ancient Israelites did not pronounce the Name out of reverence for it. They did not "take the Name in vain."

But it probably was pronounced on the occasion narrated in Numbers 6:22-27, in which YHWH (which we render as the Lord) puts his name upon Israel in the form of the now familiar Aaronic Blessing. They are indeed His people, and he will be their God.

A majestic name, indeed, as our Psalmist proclaims, especially in its power to preserve God's people. In spite of two thousand years of diaspora, including more than one attempt to annihilate the Jews, Judaism is the oldest continuously practiced living ethical monotheistic religion. Apparently, it is God's will that his Law be kept as an unbroken, living tradition until He comes.

And now, for us Christians, God takes on another name, Yehoshua. It means "YHWH helps." The Latinized form of the Greek rendering of the name is Jesus. Another rendering, closer to the Aramaic, Y'shua, is Joshua. The Christ-child was named after Joshua, the general who commanded the Israelites' conquest of the Promised Land after the death of Moses. Clearly a name with great expectations attached to it.

The names of his earthly father, mother, and four brothers (James, Joses, Jude and Simon) all "hark back to the glorious days of the patriarchs, the exodus, and the conquest of the Promised Land," according to Fr. John P. Meier, in the first volume of his opus on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew. Meier concludes that these names indicate that Jesus' family may have been involved in the first century reawakening of Jewish national and religious identity, and the growing popular sentiment to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel free of Roman domination. And so they named their first-born son after Joshua, as commanded by the angel. A name with great expectations, the name of a conqueror.

Yet this conquering name is bestowed upon a tiny, vulnerable baby. A baby who cried, as all male Jewish babies cry, at his circumcision, when he was officially given his name. As the writer of Philippians states, God "emptied himself" of his Glory, taking human form, humbling himself even to public humiliation, scourging, and crucifixion. Theologians call it kenosis.

To honor/shame cultures, like those of the Middle East both then and now, kenosis is a scandal. A god who would do such a thing just can't be God - it's too dishonorable! There is nothing like it in any other religion on earth. There are traditions of gods becoming incarnated as humans. But all of them were high-born, nobles, kings, somebodies. No other religion claims its god was born a peasant, grew up as a laborer, and was executed as a criminal. A seditious, peasant, laborer named, in seeming irony, after a conquering hero.

Now the Roman Empire is dead and gone. Ironically, its language, Latin, is only remembered because it was preserved by the Christian Church, the church founded by the followers of this peasant who was executed by the Roman Empire. After all, Christianity eventually became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, with a liturgy in the language of the common people, Latin. In that way Jesus, the crucified one, did indeed conquer the world of his day.

But Christianity as a state religion is a contradiction in terms. The LORD's kenosis in becoming this peasant child, living the life he lived, dying the death he died, and being resurrected - all this turns all notions of status, honor, power, glory on their heads. It does more than just set Christianity apart. It sets Christianity against - against culture, all cultures of all peoples of all times and places. The Church may build culture, but the Church also critiques culture.

This separation of Divine from earthly power is very old in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It started with Moses the leader, and Aaron the high priest. It continued when God granted Israel a line of kings: beginning with David, there was always a king, a separate priesthood, and often one or more prophets who were separate from both. The king led, the priests kept the temple rituals, but the prophets spoke for God, often criticizing both priest and king.

Now the Church has become an institution, or a set of institutions, valuable institutions that in many cases have stood as counterweights to the governmental powers of nations and states. Institutions that have given help to the oppressed. And sometimes institutions that have done the oppressing. But Christianity itself is not an institution. It is a spiritual insurgency, constantly injecting itself into the world, like God injecting himself into the world almost clandestinely as the baby Jesus. The baby named, "God Helps."

And the Church is in institutional crisis. Roman Catholicism is beset with a dearth of priests, and scandals among the priests that it has. Mainline Protestant churches are losing members. In too many places, the Church is even persecuted, as in the Christmas attack on a church in Congo. Maybe the Church as an institution needs to team up with Christianity as a spiritual insurgency, and sponsor networks of home churches. To get small to become great, as did our LORD Jesus. To "have love one for another as I have loved you," if I may quote our Savior.

But then, that would risk the Church being taken over by its own spiritual insurgency. It risks the high being overtaken by the low. It risks having multiple centers and sources of power within the church. The upside is revival, the downside is dissension. And there are so many fires of internal church conflict burning in our day already. What can we do?

We can call on that lowly, ironic name that is above every name, the name that promises, "God Helps," the name of Yehoshua the Anointed One, Y'shua the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. The name of the one who conquers our sin and sets us free from it. The name that we value above every name because it raises us up on the Last Day to be with Him. And we can return to the world, like the shepherds, as ambassadors for what we experience.

Now may the LORD bless you and keep you,
May the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you,
May the LORD look upon you with favor, and give you peace.
In the name of Jesus Christ, who lifts high the lowly in spirit, amen.

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