Today, the universal Church celebrates the Memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus. This commemoration has been assigned to the first free day following January 1. So, it moves. This optional memorial has been celebrated in the Latin Catholic calendar of saints, since the late fifteenth century. Veneration of the Holy Name was made universal on 20 December 1721, during the pontificate of Pope Innocent XIII.
While the memorial traditionally celebrates the circumcision of our Lord (when Jewish children were given their name) eight-days after their birth, I would like to look at it from a different point of view.
We are all familiar with the famous Philippians’ hymn in chapter two of St. Paul’s epistle:
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2: 6-11)
Scripture says that “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every other name…” Do you find that verse curious? How is one name better than the other? Is Billy more preferable than Peter or Robyn over Katie? No. So, what was St. Paul trying to say?
The ancients would have derived a different meaning from the hymn because of their familiarity with the Old Testament and Aramaic. The Aramaic term for the word “name” is Shem. This name should be familiar to you since Shem inherited the blessing of God through his father Noah. With that blessing came all the covenantal promises of Adam as well. It is through Shem that God passed on His covenantal blessings renewed with Noah after the Great Flood in a pattern that resembles a renewed creation account (that is another blog).
Chapter nine of Genesis ends with the Noah blessing Shem and cursing Canaan (Curse was due to his father Ham trying to steal the birthright away from Shem by laying with his mother):
He also said: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem! Let Canaan be his slave. May God expand Japheth, so that he dwells among the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.”
After Chapter 10 recounts the Noahin genealogy, the writer of Genesis continues on with the recounting of biblical history. Chapter 11 opens up with the fact that everyone was speaking the same language (Genesis 11:1). As many know, one of the unifying factors of a people and nation is a common language in which to communicate through. The Sacred Writ is thus recounting that all the peoples were still in union under their covenantal leader, Shem.
The next event is a sudden diaspora of the Noahin family. The biblical event that seemingly caused the diaspora is what we all remember colloquially as the Tower of Babel. Here God confuses the languages which soon gives rise to the table of nations because they wanted to build a building that reached heaven. But, think about it. Was God really threatened by a building? Clearly not! So, what is this story trying to recount?
As you remember, Canaan and his sons were cursed to be slaves of Seth because of the attempted usurpation of power by Ham over Shem. The descendants of Ham and Seth are to be found here in the Shinar plain (probably the Amorites who seemed to give rise to the Babylonians). Why were they building? Scripture tells us exactly why:
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” (Genesis 11:4) [Emphasis mine]
Ham’s descendants wanted their own “Shem”. They wanted their own ruler. And so, they break covenant with Shem and God then curses them with various tongues that match their split allegiances. To build a large building and “make” a name for oneself is to establish a capitol and designate a ruler. But they already had a ruler and here was the crux of the problem.
Throughout Jewish history, the “name” or Shem was the rightful covenantal ruler of Israel. Whoever was the “Shem” held all the authority and power that was passed down from Adam through Noah.
Hopefully, Philippians is now coming into focus. To have the name above all names is to be the Shem of Shems. Or, in modernese – the King of Kings. It would be foolish to bend one’s knee (In the Semitic culture to bend one’s knee is yield all power) just because of someone’s name. It also helps us understand the allegiance formula mentioned in the hymn that “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Properly understood, we see what this hymn really meant to the Jews. The Jews were waiting for their King. In fact, the whole universe was waiting for it’s Shem.
Remember, God renewed the promises of Adam with Noah which included dominion over the universe and even temple worship (Garden was a temple and Adam it’s High Priest – See Garden of Eden 2.0). Jesus is that Shem. We invoke His name in times of need and in prayer because He has rightful authority and jurisdiction over all visible and invisible. We Christians are His servants.
During the waning days of Christmastime, we are still liturgically asking the question, prompted by William Chatterton Dix song, What child is this? The child we speak of has a name – Jesus. And at His Shem, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, …to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord.