The Naming of Jesus

HolyFamilybyGutierrez“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)

This little verse in Luke probes deeply into the meaning of the Incarnation. When God took on human flesh, God became a particular human being at a particular time and culture. The circumcision on the eighth day marked Jesus as a Jew. When he could only make inarticulate sounds, he was initiated into the rich cultural matrix of his Jewish tradition.

On the same day, the boy was named Jesus (Joshua), binding him to the associations with others in his culture who bore that name. The name is fitting in that it means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus certainly lived up to his name by being the savior of humankind. The history of the name in the Jewish tradition, however, is sometimes problematic.

A man named Joshua led the Jews into the Promised Land through a violent conquest according to the Book of Joshua. This Joshua’s character and actions were quite the opposite of Jesus, who preached nonviolence and embodied nonviolence in his life. Perhaps the name was chosen by the angel to give us a new meaning of what it really means for Yahweh to save. That is, Yahweh does not save by leading a violent conquest; Yahweh saves through Jesus’ leading us into a Promised Land based on peace and nonviolence.

The prophet Zechariah had a vision of a high priest named Joshua standing in a soiled robe while submitting to Satan’s judgment. The Lord intervenes and rebukes Satan. Then he clothes Joshua in a clean garment. (Zech. 3)  Being sinless, Jesus would not have needed to be clothed in a new garment, but he stood in the place of sinful humanity when he was nailed to the cross. According to Paul, Jesus himself is the new clothing we put on in order to put on the New Humanity.

When I was young and resentful about many things, one of the things I was resentful about was the imposition of family history and the American culture I was born into. After all, nobody consulted me about it. But now I figure that if being born into a culture with its pluses and minuses and embracing that culture in order to transform it was okay for Jesus, then it should be okay for me.

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The Child Who Supplants Us All

crecheThe angels say to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 2:10) They say the same to us today. What are we afraid of? The shepherds were afraid of the glory of the Lord shining about them. That sounds like a good thing, but most of us aren’t used to glorious light filling the night sky any more than the shepherds were. Even the most devout of us would at least be startled if such a light shone around us. When Herod heard of the birth of a child destined to be a king, he was afraid. Caesar Augustus would have been as afraid if he had been told about Jesus’ birth. His successors were sufficiently afraid to persecute the followers of Jesus for three centuries. What were they afraid of?

Herod and Caesar Augustus were afraid of being supplanted. They didn’t want to give up their imperial positions. The shepherds had a lot less to lose but if Jesus supplanted them as shepherds, how would they earn a living? As it turned out, no amount of fear would stop Jesus from supplanting all emperors and shepherds. The two jobs became one with the Good Shepherd who leads all of us, deposed emperors and shepherds included, through the sheep’s gate into safe pastures. Are we afraid of these safe pastures?

Here we have fear of the unknown (what is this strange light show all about?) and fear of being supplanted. Fear of being supplanted is a version of fear of the unknown; we don’t know what life will be like if we are supplanted. We might chuckle at lowly shepherds fearing they will lose their jobs and indulge in self-righteous laughter at horrid kings and emperors who don’t want to lose their power, but it seems to me that all of us should be afraid of having our imperial pretensions with which we makes ourselves little tin kings supplanted by the Christ Child.

The thought of being supplanted is frightening, but the angels’ song “Glory to God in the highest” seems to celebrate our supplanting as a wonderful thing. Can we believe the angels? The shepherds believed the angels enough to go and see the child for themselves, something Herod never did. Maybe glory to God in the highest is a much greater thing than glory to Me, Myself, and I. We won’t know if it is unless we try it. Can we accept the invitation that this Christmas celebration offers us?