The Holy Name of Jesus

The Holy Name of Jesus

This is a detail of a painting of Adam and Eve by Peter Wenzel that is displayed in the Pinacoteca at the Vatican Museums. Adam named the animals in the garden.
CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

In 2002, Pope John Paul II encouraged in the adoption of the revised Roman Missal a reinstitution of the memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus, which had been suppressed in the renovation of the liturgical calendar after the Second Vatican Council. Today it is celebrated between Christmas and Epiphany each year, on Jan. 3.

The feast memorializes the sacred name of the redeemer, at whose sounding every living thing (including the souls in the afterlife) are called to venerate. Its history dates to medieval Italy, when saints like Bernardino of Siena and John of Capistrano exhorted the faithful to prayerfully reflect on the moniker given to Jesus by Mary and Joseph, at the instruction of Gabriel. Today the original monogrammed tablet which they processed around the Italian countryside to inspire this devotion is located at the top of the dramatic staircase rising up from the Capitoline Hill in Rome at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (the “altar of heaven”). Here in Chicago, the colossal cathedral is also dedicated to the Holy Name.

Though we lose the connection in many languages, the actual name of Jesus is connected to Yeshua and thus can best be transliterated into English as Joshua, which comes from the Hebrew word meaning “salvation, deliverance or our help.”

In Greek, this became IHESUS, and so the common IHS lettering, present on Franciscan and Jesuit iconography and imagery, represents this sacred appellation. A certain generation of Catholics still reverently bow their head each time they pronounce the savior’s name, though this custom is in steady decline among younger Christians.

Theologians and ministers who dedicate their lives to service of the poor often reflect upon the intrinsic power in recognizing a person by their name. It immediately humanizes the other and dissuades us from relying on cartoonish caricatures of their personhood due to race, economic class or immigration status.

Adam named the animals in the garden, and we regularly pray that the Father’s name be “hallowed.”

We know that God has called us each by name, and that those of the elect — who are called to a fullness of joy which none of us in this life possess but every human being, albeit perhaps even unthematically or subconsciously, hopes to discover — are written permanently in the Book of Life.

When we assert that Jesus shared the human condition “in all things but sin,” one of these realities is the utter normality and “giveness” of his name, bestowed upon him in an admittedly unique family situation, which his friends and kinsmen certainly called out with laughter, frustration and eventual adulation, and which we his followers continue to invoke with awe thousands of years later. 

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

Categories: Columns, Growing in Faith

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