On the Holy Name
[Is.60:1-6; Eph.3:2-3, 5-6; Mt.2:1-12]
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the day when the Magi discovered the Christ-child in Bethlehem. This marks the end of our 12 days of Christmas with all its joy and celebration.
Many people simply love Christmas. But as the guests leave, the gifts are put away and life returns to normal, some people are left with a sense of emptiness and loss.
This reminds me of the young student who went to his rabbi with a problem. He said, ‘When I study, and when I join others to celebrate the great feasts of our faith, I feel surrounded by light. I feel joyful and alive. But when it’s all over, it all disappears. Everything inside me dies.’
The old rabbi thought for a while, and replied, ‘It’s exactly the same feeling a person gets when walking through the woods at night, when the breeze is cool, and the scent in the air is intoxicating. If another person joins that traveller with a lantern, they can walk safely and joyfully together. But if they come to a crossroads, and the one with a lantern departs, then the first must grope his way alone. That is, unless he carries a light within him.’ [i]
In other words, we all need a light for our journey.
The Magi had a star to guide them. But now that Christmas is over, what light can we follow?
In the Church’s liturgical calendar, today is not only the Epiphany; it’s also the Feast of the Holy Name. [ii] This is a happy conjunction of events, because the holy name of Jesus is itself a bright star for us us to safely follow.
Jesus’ holy name came not from Mary or Joseph, but from God himself (Lk.1:31; Mt.1:21), and he received it in the Temple, eight days after his birth.
In the Old Testament, there’s an intimate connection between God’s name and his power. In the New Testament, Jesus’ name is mentioned 999 times, [iii] and it’s often invoked in miracles like the healing of the sick. Indeed, Jesus emphasises the power of his name when he says, ‘If you ask the Father anything in my name, he will give it to you’ (Jn.16:23).
It’s not surprising, then, that Paul says, ‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth…’ (Phil.2:10).
St Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) was a Franciscan missionary in Italy. He dearly loved Jesus’ holy name. He often preached about it and carried a banner displaying a monogram of Jesus’ name, surrounded by sunrays.
Today, this image is known as a Christogram, and it bears the letters ‘IHS’, representing the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus: iota-eta-sigma (ΙΗΣ). [iv]
‘IHS’ is sometimes said to mean Iesus Hominum Salvator (‘Jesus, Saviour of men’, in Latin) or In Hoc Signo, which is short for ‘In hoc signo vinces’, meaning ‘in this sign you will conquer’.
St Bernardine used to hold this sign up high whenever he blessed the sick, and many miracles were performed in Jesus’ name. He also said that we should always have this sign on our doors to remind us of God’s many blessings. [v]
In one of his homilies, St Bernardine said that the sweet name of Jesus gives us holy thoughts, it fills the soul with noble sentiments, it strengthens virtue, it leads to good works, and it nourishes pure affections. He also said that all spiritual food leaves the soul dry if it doesn’t contain the penetrating oil of Jesus’ name.
When you take your pen, he said, write the name Jesus. If you write books, include Jesus’ name in them … (because) Jesus is honey in our mouth, a light in our eyes, a flame in our heart … and the cure for all diseases of the soul.
The English hymnist Charles Wesley also recognised the mystical power of Jesus’ holy name. In one of his many hymns, he wrote:
Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
That bids our sorrows cease;
’Tis music in the sinner’s ears,
’Tis life, and health, and peace. [vi]
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Jesus is the one name that contains everything, including God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’, it adds, is to invoke him and to call him within us, for Jesus’ name is the only name that contains the presence it signifies. [vii]
And it’s a name that means ‘God saves’ (Mt.1:21). [viii]
So, as we start afresh in 2021, remember that everyone needs a guiding star.
Remember the holy name of Jesus, for he’s the light of the world shining in the darkness.
And always keep his sweet name deep in your heart and soft on your lips.
[i] Flor McCarthy, New Sunday and Holy Day Liturgies, Year B. Dominican Publications, Dublin. 2017:53.
[ii] The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus was established by the Franciscans in 1530, and extended to the Universal Church in 1721.
[iii] Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. https://www.christianbiblereference.org/faq_WordCount.htm
[vii] C.C.C. # 2666
[viii] Many people think the name ‘Christ’ is Jesus’ surname, but it’s not. It’s a title that comes from the Greek word ‘christos’. It means ‘messiah’ in Hebrew, and ‘the anointed one of God’ in English.