The Naming of Jesus and the Turn of the Millennium | Luke 2:21-32
*preached at Grace North Church, January 2nd*
One day as I was walking back from our neighborhood coffeeshop, I came upon a puppy on the sidewalk, a little terrier yapping at the heels of anyone who happened to be coming by, and darting out into the street. He was a cute little guy, with lots of life, and it would break my heart to think of him losing his life to some careless motorist passing by. So I knelt down and petted the little guy, and as you might have been able to predict, he followed me all the way home. He was terrified of Clare at first, our enormous greyhound-lab mix, but within a few hours, Clare was hiding from him. That first day, I told Kate that I wanted to call him "Krishna," mostly because if we'd ever had a son, I wanted to call him Krishna. But I know my parents would kill me if I did that, so the next best thing is to name a dog, I thought.
But then I thought better of it. We didn't think we'd be keeping the little puppy, and I figured that with a name like Krishna, I'd never get anybody to take him. After much thought, Kate and I decided on Brendan, which is a lovely name, even for a dog. But, upon reflection, it was the wrong name. Brendan is a strong, sedate, steady name, more suitable for Great Danes than terriers. Instead our dog is frightfully clever, maddeningly mischievous, and even at time devious. He in every way deserves the name Krishna, the spunky, mischievous, and often naughty incarnation of Vishnu in the Hindu pantheon. Krishna, after all stole honeyed butter from the pot in the kitchen and then lied about it, he ate dirt, and gave his mother a transcendental vision in order to avoid punishment, and when he was a teenager, he seduced every young woman in the village.
Our little dog is a Krishna for sure, in personality if not in name, and I kick myself for not listening to my instincts in the first place, because, in fact, nobody has adopted the dog, and by this time, we are not hopeful that anyone will. Brendan is a fine name, but unfortunately, it does not describe his soul. Hopefully he will grow into it.
The Native Americans must have had similar experiences, because among many tribes it is the custom to wait until a person's personality has developed to give him or her a name. Native American names are often descriptive, and it would unduly influence the child's development if a name were chosen for him or her.
For a child is what the Chinese call "Pu" or "The Uncarved Block". The Uncarved Block is just a piece of wood. It displays nothing, yet so long as it remains untouched, it contains infinite possibilities. As a block, it could be carved into a horse, a bird, a spoon or bowl, or the image of a deity. It's potential is unfathomable. But once it is carved, into, say, a horse, it is just a carving of a horse; no longer might it be a deity or a bird or a million other shapes the craftsman may divine in the wood.
Naming is a way of carving. When something is unnamed, it possesses infinite possibilities. The tinge in my stomach may be excitement over a coming vacation, or the stirrings of a new short story idea, or an allergy to something I'd had for lunch, but once my wife says, "It's the stomach flu." I know I'd better go to bed, and all the other possibilities simply go out the window.
Small wonder, then, that names in the ancient world held such immense power. Words themselves were held in the same awe and esteem as our most subtle sciences today. Once you knew someone's name, you had power over that person. In some ancient cultures, a person had a popular name, and a secret, personal name known only to the Shaman and perhaps, one's spouse. One guarded one's secret name with one's life, for indeed, if it were discovered, one's power was lost to the one who held the name.
People's names often change when they change, as well. This is as true today as it was in the ancient world. When Richard Palmer was ordained, his name was added to. Suddenly he was Fr. Richard. And when he married, Fr. Richard Palmer became Fr. Richard Mapplebeckpalmer. For centuries when women married, their names changed to reflect the new identity they were forging with their husbands.
In the ancient world, too, changing one's name often reflected a change in personality, or even in destiny. In our first reading this morning, for instance, Abram is given a new name by God. Abram means, "ancestor" but God makes him a promise, that from him shall come a great nation, and in the process gives him the name "Abraham" which means "ancestor of multitudes" or "millions."
In our second reading, too, naming is very important. For in this reading the child of Mary is given the name carried on the tongues of angels: "Yeshua" or Joshua, or as we have come to read it, "Jesus." This was not at all an uncommon name in Israel. History is full of Yeshuas. The name means, "he will save," and points toward the destiny Jesus is fated to fulfill.
And this is the point, I believe, for in a certain way, one's name is a self-fulfilling prophesy. You probably will recall the newspaper item ten or so years ago telling of the parents who named their twin daughters Ima and Ura. Unfortunately, their last name was Hogg. I fear that Ima Hogg and Ura Hogg came into the world with a significant disadvantage due to their names. Their parents' might have had a good laugh, but I'll wager those poor little girls have been the butt of this joke their entire lives. But if one's name is auspicious, well, that is another matter. My mother told me early on that "John" means a gift from God. I grew up feeling like a gift, and it was only later that I discovered that I was in fact an accident, and from then on "gift from God" took on a slightly different meaning. But I was grown by then and could handle it, thank goodness.
Jesus is named "the one who will save his people," and with a name like that, how could the kid not grow up thinking he was going to do something important, something significant? How could he not go through his life looking for the ways people were in bondage and devising creative solutions? The other side of this coin of course is the question of who Jesus would have been if he had been named "Jonas" which means "thunder" or some other name? We will never know. Once Jesus has been named, the block has been carved, and the infinite possibilities limited, the destiny selected, the future narrowing, taking shape, become unmalleable.
It may be that it is for this very reason that the Jews refuse to name God. When Moses asked God who he should say was sending him, God said simply "I am what I am," or "I am what I will be." Not a proper name at all, and yet the Jews refused to speak even this. Because they refused to speak it, we do not even know how to pronounce it today. The text shows us four consonants, YWHW, which people used to read as "Jehovah," but this was a gross mistranslation. The true pronunciation is probably closer to "Yahweh" or something similar, but again we will never know. Jews generally used the generic word "El", or "elohim" when referring to God, which is the equivalent of writing God's name in English with a lower-case "g". All gods were called "El", and it seemed safe to refer to the God of Israel the same way, but the true name was never spoken. And so today, we do not know how to say it.
The Jews likewise refused to allow images of their God. While all the other gods had grand images depicting their various mythologies, and every home had idols of the gods' likeness, the Jews were allowed none of that. The God of Israel would remain faceless, formless, an uncarved block. The God of Israel in this way remained infinite, unconfined to the limitations of statues or other physical forms.
The Taoists tell us that any label we put on God cannot be the truth, any name that can be named cannot be the eternal name. So if anyone asks you what God you worship, you can say, "I worship Pu." And when they recover, you can explain that "Pu" is the Chinese word for the uncarved block, the formless, the infinite one.
Yesterday was the first day of a new millennium in the popular imagination. And it seems everybody has an idea of what it's going to be like. The Fundies predict the imminent demise of Western civilization. The politicians are heralding a new era of cooperation and free trade. The cyberpunks are preaching a new age of technological anarchy, and the Trekkies look forward to an idyllic quasi-military United Nations writ large in our galaxy. And mainline Christians and liberal Jews are working to bring about the eschatological feast, when all peoples will be free, and justice and food will be abundant for all.
Yet, as attractive or repellent as any of these ideas might seem to you or me, the very act of naming, just the speaking of these possibilities will force the future in directions it may otherwise not take. The ancients were right: naming has great power, and we should be careful what we call things.
For myself, I prefer to look forward to the new millennium with wonder and expectation. It is as yet an uncarved block. It could hold disaster, and it could hold redemption. It could mean the end of everything, and it could mean the beginning. And like the Mystery we worship, I am content to let it be a mystery.
Let us pray.
O God, don't we love to name things? We figure if we call one person a liberal and another a conservative, we have them all figured out. Once a child is labeled "problematic" in school, his fate is sealed. But you, O God, are a God beyond names, beyond categories, beyond the mental boxes we construct around each other. You are mystery, the mystery of mysteries, and before you we can only be silent. Help us to be careful what we call each other, to recognize the power of our labels, and simultaneously, their arbitrariness before you; for at your feet all our mental categories dissolve, and all of our names fall as gibberish from our tongues. Help us to greet this new era with wonder and openness, and not to name it prematurely. For heaven and earth, past, present, and future are in your hands alone. You are the Holy Mystery, before whom nothing more can be said, except, perhaps, Amen.