On January 1, this Sunday, the church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name. It comes eight days after Christmas, and so falls every year on New Year’s Day. That may be why it gets so little attention.
What is the holy name? Does God have a first name? YHWH is the only personal name used for God in all Hebrew scripture—and it is never written with vowels—to remind the reader that the personal name of God is too holy to pronounce.
We should not try to get too close to God, it would be too presumptuous. It would break a boundary and would not be safe. So, we came up with words that describe God to use instead. God became the Holy, the Almighty. We gave our God a place in history and prayed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God of Sabaoth was the God of the armies of the faithful people or the Hosts of Heaven.
In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:8-9).
Those shepherds were humble and poor. They scratched out a living, but only by hard work in dirty and cold conditions. The shepherds knew all about the unbridgeable distance between earth and heaven and would never think to call God by name. Yet suddenly, the dark night became a new and light-filled place.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” So, they went with haste and found Mary, Joseph, and the child lying in the manger . . .. They made known what had been told them . . .. Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:10-11,16-17, 19).
Words about her son: Savior, Messiah, Lord. Mary, too, had been terrified by an angel. Like the shepherds, the humble village girl had been startled by glory in the night. Mary also knew about the unreachable distance between earth and heaven. Similarly, to the shepherds, Mary knew better than to call God by name.
All the while Mary carried the baby, she pondered what she had heard. Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, and she proclaimed the greatness of the Lord, but did not utter the name of God. Mary returned to Nazareth, and traveled with Joseph to Bethlehem, yet she did not utter the name of God. The baby was born, and the shepherds came to her. What they told her of the angels gave credence to what she already knew, and pondered in her heart, but did not utter the name of God.
On the eighth day, Mary and Joseph, following the tradition, took their son to be circumcised and named. “His name is Jesus,” Mary said, and she spoke the name of God. On that day in Bethlehem, when the holy child was just eight days old, Mary spoke the personal name of God, and suddenly the distance between earth and heaven was very close, indeed.
The Rev. Nancy Webb Stroud