The Nameless One Who Took on a Name for Us

Homily, The Nameless One Who Took on a Name for Us
Second Sunday of Christmas, The Feast of the Holy Name, 2023
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church
Tequesta, FL

The Rev. Derek M Larson, TSSF

Today’s Lectionary Readings:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every year on the first of January the Church calendar observes a major feast: The Feast Day of the Holy Name. But it is only once every seven years or so that the Feast of the Holy Name lands on a Sunday. And so for that reason, while it is a major feast of the Church, we don’t often spend a lot of time thinking about. Which is a shame, because it is such an interesting feast day. 

We’re used to celebrating feast days commemorating a person—the Feast of St. Francis, or St. Patrick, or St. Stephen—and sometimes we’re used to celebrating feast days that commemorate an event—Feast of the Epiphany which is coming up this Friday, or the Annunciation, or the Transfiguration. But the Feast Day we celebrate today is not exactly about a person or an event but a word. An idea. A name. 

And since we don’t often have the opportunity to celebrate this feast day together in the Church, I’d like to approach the sermon a little differently today. Maybe from a little more of an intellectual and philosophical stance than usual. I want to take this opportunity to reflect together on the meaning of names and why it is we celebrate this major feast day of the Church. 

So there’s this interesting passage at the beginning the Tao Te Ching, a sacred text of Taoism written by Lao-Tzu in the 6th century BCE, that speaks about names. It says,

“The tao that can be described 
is not the eternal Tao. 
The name that can be spoken 
is not the eternal Name.”

And while it’s not a Christian text, I’ve always been struck by the wisdom of those opening words, and how much they resonate with our beliefs about God in Christianity. 

“The tao that can be described 
is not the eternal Tao. 
The name that can be spoken 
is not the eternal Name.”

The Tao in Taosim is sort of the natural order of things, or the grounds of existence. It permeates all things and keeps all things balanced and connected. Of course, in Christianity, we describe that as God. And so we could very easily translate these opening words from the Tao Te Ching into our own tradition as 

“The god that can be described
Is not the eternal God.
The name that can be spoken
Is not the eternal Name.”

In Christianity we believe that God is mystery. God is beyond all names. As many ways as we can use to describe God, in the end they all fall short, because God is bigger than our minds and words can comprehend. As St. Augustine of Hippo said, “If you think you understand God, it’s not God that you understand.” With all our words and names we can point to God, but we can never capture God as God is.

And so in the Hebrew Scriptures when Moses at the burning bush asks God for God’s name, God simply replies, “I am who I am.” God is bigger than names. God is, as theologian Paul Tillich would say, the ground of being. God is the eternal Nameless One. 

But today, on the eighth day of Christmas, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name. And today our gospel reading reminds us that eight days after Jesus’ birth, he was circumcised according to the Jewish custom and given the name Jesus. 

Now if we believe that Jesus is God, is Divine, than today we recognize a great paradox.

Today we recognize the paradox of the Nameless One taking on a name.

The Nameless One, God, the profound mystery, the ground of our being, the great I AM, became a person with a name. God who is incomprehensible became God we can comprehend. God who is unnameable became God we can name. God became one of us. 

That’s what the shepherds came to see. That’s what Mary pondered in her heart. That’s what the angel proclaimed to Joseph in his dream. 

And the reason that is so important, is because of what it is names signify.

Names point to relationships. Names are one of the basic elements that allows us to be in relationship with one another. With names we can call on one another. We can tell stories with one another. With names we commit ourselves to one another.

Think about just how important names are in your life. Think about the moment you named your child and all that went into choosing just the right name. Or about the first time you met your closest friend and was introduced to them by name. Or when you married your spouse and took their name. Names are important.

If a person lived alone on a deserted island, maybe they could get away without a name, but in communities we depend on names. We know one another and enter into relationship with one another by name. 

And so the reason we celebrate a name today is because it points to us that God, the Nameless One, has a deep desire to be in relationship with us.

And this is nothing new, all through the Hebrew Scriptures there are stories about God desiring a relationship with humanity, but in Jesus God deepened that relationship that we might be on a first-name basis with God. That our relationship with God would be all the more apparent. All the more accessible. All the more intimate. All the more easy for us to understand.

The name of Jesus, then, is a name worth celebrating. Because it signifies a relationship. And not just any relationship. But a sacred, holy relationship with the God that is beyond all understanding. 

In the secular world we also celebrate today as a New Year. And perhaps today we are thinking about new beginnings and how we might be more intentional about prioritizing the things that matter most to us in 2023. I wonder what it would look like, then, to prioritize our relationship this year with the Nameless One who took on a name for us. I wonder what it would look like to reciprocate God’s deep desire for intimacy with us. I wonder how the name of Jesus might be for us a reminder of how a God beyond all knowing became for us a God we can know.

Today is the Feast Day of the Holy Name and the beginning of a New Year. Let us, then, be reminded of just how much God loves us and participate in that Divine love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.