Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Name that Saves

Something stuck me about today's gospel. The Angel of the Lord appears to St Joseph and says to him: ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you must name him Jesus, because he is the one who is to save his people from their sins.’

The Fathers of the Church frequently commented on the significance of the name of Jesus. They saw in the figure of Joshua (the names are the same in Hebrew) a prefiguration of Christ, but more especially, they picked up on this fact which is recorded in St Matthew's Gospel that the name means Saviour.

Indeed, I seem to recall [I can't chase down the exact reference at the moment] that St Augustine accused one of his Pelagian opponents of forgetting that Christ (the anointed one) is also Jesus (the Saviour). He didn't think that Pelagian theology did justice to the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Now, Cardinal Ratzinger (as was) used to point out his discomfort with people referring to 'Jesus' whilst pointedly not calling him Christ. That, he pointed out, was frequently done to promote an inadequate low Christology. By speaking about Jesus, they were trying to obscure that very fact which makes Christ more than just 'one of us'. I agree with the Cardinal on this point and another one could be added. There's a certain natural reserve amongst the faithful about using the name Jesus. When we reflect on what the name means and the fact that it was divinely given, then this reserve seems fitting. The name of Jesus is sacred and casually using it as an implicit denial of His divinity is ironic, not to mention disrespectful. Thus, preferring to say Christ instead of Jesus mirrors the Jewish custom of not pronouncing the Divine Name. Now, I wouldn't suggest that we should never use Our Lord's given name. That wouldn't be right either. But we could certainly take care to see that we do so respectfully because today's Gospel tells us that there's something special about the Holy Name of 'Jesus'. It wasn't simply something that Our Lady and St Joseph plucked out of the 'big Book of Jewish Baby Names'. It was a name that was given by God and means 'Saviour'. Indeed, considered as a divinely given title, one could conceivably argue that 'Jesus'/'Saviour' is a higher and more crucial title than 'Christ'/'Anointed'.

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