I had the honour and privilege a number of years ago in being able to travel to Israel and visit parts of the West Bank. As part of the ten day learning experience, the group had three days living with Palestinian Christian families in Bethlehem. I found those three days deeply humbling seeing a Christian family navigate life in a predominately Muslim city which itself was surrounded by an Israeli security wall that brought (and still does) economic hardship for all…in the birth place of Christ.
Those three days were life changing. The Bethlehem scene on Christmas cards (and in my naïve imagination) was very different from the Bethlehem I witnessed, albeit for three days. The family we stayed with showed my colleague and I tremendous hospitality and despite their improvised state, Saliba (the husband and father) spared nothing in showing us his home town and birthplace.
On our last night together the family gathered and hosted a BBQ and over the most wonderful lamb, my colleague asked Saliba as to the meaning of his name. “The Cross” he replied. My name means “the Cross”.
And like a hammer blow, sharp and clean, Geoff and I realized that this Palestinian Christian man’s name, identified for all he encountered, who he was and who he belonged too.
Two thousand years of history, faith and struggle in Saliba’s name.
What’s in a name? Well quite a lot it seems.
When we introduce ourselves to someone new, it is our name that acts as our first spoken reference point (and visa versa).
Families often have pet names for their loved ones. My grandmother throughout her life was known as “Dot”. A family nickname the story goes, because once when lying asleep in her pram a neighbour peered in at her and exclaimed “Ach! Would you look at the wee dot!”
Of course, not all names bestowed are welcome. Children and teens can be “cutting” to say the least. I went to school with a guy simply known as “Toothpaste”. Due to his prominent front teeth. I dread to think what nicknames I acquired at school…
We can “lose our name” or have our name “diminished” or “tarnished”… oh so easily in this age of invidious social media coverage.
Names as slurs used against “the other”. Names used to knock down. Names used to signify identity and belonging. Names that carry on a family tradition. Getting a “name for yourself” can have both positive and negative connotations.
And the Gospel reading from a few weeks ago when the infant Jesus is brought to the Temple for circumcision and to receive His name is worth reading and reflecting on the names who appear at His naming ceremony.
Here’s the reading…
21 When the eighth day arrived, the day of circumcision, the child was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.
22-24 Then when the days stipulated by Moses for purification were complete, they took him up to Jerusalem to offer him to God as commanded in God’s Law: “Every male who opens the womb shall be a holy offering to God,” and also to sacrifice the “pair of doves or two young pigeons” prescribed in God’s Law.
25-32 In Jerusalem at the time, there was a man, Simeon by name, a good man, a man who lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel. And the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he would see the Messiah of God before he died. Led by the Spirit, he entered the Temple. As the parents of the child Jesus brought him in to carry out the rituals of the Law, Simeon took him into his arms and blessed God:
God, you can now release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;
it’s now out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations,
and of glory for your people Israel.
33-35 Jesus’ father and mother were speechless with surprise at these words. Simeon went on to bless them, and said to Mary his mother,
This child marks both the failure and
the recovery of many in Israel,
A figure misunderstood and contradicted—
the pain of a sword-thrust through you—
But the rejection will force honesty,
as God reveals who they really are.
36-38 Anna the prophetess was also there, a daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. She was by now a very old woman. She had been married seven years and a widow for eighty-four. She never left the Temple area, worshiping night and day with her fastings and prayers. At the very time Simeon was praying, she showed up, broke into an anthem of praise to God, and talked about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem.
39-40 When they finished everything required by God in the Law, they returned to Galilee and their own town, Nazareth. There the child grew strong in body and wise in spirit. And the grace of God was on him.
Jesus. “God saves”.
Jesus. “God’s salvation”.
I guess, as a follower of the same Jesus, there is no other name more vital. Jesus, “God saves”.