Yesterday we continued our meditation on the Eighth Day of Christmas by pondering the meaning of the Lord’s circumcision, which occurred on that day. In today’s post we consider another thing that took place on the same day: The name “Jesus” was announced and ascribed to Him.
Was this really the best name for Him? Why did the angel say that He should be called Jesus? Was He not referred to by other names (e.g., Emmanuel) in the Old Testament? What is the significance of the name “Jesus”?
St. Thomas Aquinas, through his Summa Theologiae, will be our teacher in this analysis. His teachings are presented below in bold, black italics, while my commentary appears in plain, red text. St. Thomas takes up the following question:
Whether His name was suitably given to Christ? (Summa Theologiae III, Q 37, Art 2).
A name should answer to the nature of a thing. This is clear in the names of genera and species, as stated Metaph. iv: “Since a name is but an expression of the definition” which designates a thing’s proper nature.
Now, the names of individual men are always taken from some property of the men to whom they are given. Either in regard to time; thus men are named after the Saints on whose feasts they are born: or in respect of some blood relation; thus a son is named after his father or some other relation; and thus the kinsfolk of John the Baptist wished to call him “by his father’s name Zachary,” not by the name John, because “there” was “none of” his “kindred that” was “called by this name,” as related Luke 1:59-61. Or, again, from some occurrence; thus Joseph “called the name of” the “first-born Manasses, saying: God hath made me to forget all my labors” (Genesis 41:51). Or, again, from some quality of the person who receives the name; thus it is written (Genesis 25:25) that “he that came forth first was red and hairy like a skin; and his name was called Esau,” which is interpreted “red.”
What St. Thomas discusses in terms of names is somewhat forgotten today. In our era, at least in the West, names are simply a sound associated with us. There is very little sense that names mean something or signify something. For example, my name, “Charles,” means “strong” or “manly.” In addition, I was named after my father and carry a family name forward. My full name is Charles Evans Pope IV. In its entirety, my name speaks to both a legacy and a quality.
Today, however, parents more often seem to choose names based on what is popular, or clever, or that “sound good.” In some cases, whim and/or frivolity replace thoughtful consideration. In biblical times the ancient Jews waited until the eighth day to name a child. This permitted some time to observe something of the nature of the child, of his or her qualities. This was especially important when the child was not going to be named after a relative.
As St. Thomas notes, most Jewish names were highly meaningful; they brought forth images and concepts such as “God has been gracious” (John), “A sojourner there” (Gershon), “The Lord has judged” (Jehoshaphat), “Pleasant” (Naomi), and “Ewe” (Rachel).
God also hints that He has a name for us, a name by which he knows us. Revelation 2:17 says this regarding those who persevere: I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.
The key point for us is that names are not merely random sounds assigned to us. They convey meaning and something of our nature or personality. Thoughtful consideration should be given when naming a child.
But names given to men by God always signify some gratuitous gift bestowed on them by Him; thus it was said to Abraham (Genesis 17:5): “Thou shalt be called Abraham; because I have made thee a father of many nations”: and it was said to Peter (Matthew 16:18): “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church.” Since, therefore, this prerogative of grace was bestowed on the Man Christ that through Him all men might be saved, therefore He was becomingly named Jesus, i.e. Savior: the angel having foretold this name not only to His Mother, but also to Joseph, who was to be his foster father.
Yes, God knows our essence and destiny better than we or any others do. For most of his life, Abram (father of many) considered himself to be anything but the father of many nations. He did not have even a son! Yet God knew him differently and called him Abraham (father of many nations). Today, a vast multitude look to Abraham as a father—Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Indeed, he is the father of many nations. Peter, too, seemed anything but a rock when Jesus named him. He was impetuous and was not to be found during the crisis of the Crucifixion; but the Lord knew that Peter would become a rock and named him accordingly.
In Hebrew, the name Jesus is “Yeshua,” which means “Yahweh is Salvation.” This name is most suitable for Jesus, as St. Thomas sets forth. The angel instructs both Joseph and Mary to name him Jesus: You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Mat 1:21; Luke 1:31).
The name that God has for Him is “Jesus.” In assigning this name through the angel, God teaches that Jesus is both God and Savior.
This line of reasoning raises another question, which St. Thomas now takes up by articulating an objection to the fact that He was named Jesus rather than something else (e.g., Emmanuel):
It would seem that an unsuitable name was given to Christ. For the Gospel reality should correspond to the prophetic foretelling. But the prophets foretold [other names] for Christ: for it is written (Isaiah 7:14): “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel”; and (Isaiah 8:3): “Call His name, Hasten to take away the spoils; Make haste to take away the prey”; and (Isaiah 9:6): “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace”; and (Zechariah 6:12): “Behold a Man, the Orient is His name.” Thus it was unsuitable that His name should be called Jesus (Objection 1).
St. Thomas responds to that objection as follows:
All these names in some way mean the same as Jesus, which means “salvation.” For the name “Emmanuel, which being interpreted is ‘God with us,’” designates the cause of salvation, which is the union of the Divine and human natures in the Person of the Son of God, the result of which union was that “God is with us.”
When it was said, “Call his name, Hasten to take away,” etc., these words indicate from what He saved us, viz. from the devil, whose spoils He took away, according to Colossians 2:15: “Despoiling the principalities and powers, He hath exposed them confidently.”
When it was said, “His name shall be called Wonderful,” etc., the way and term of our salvation are pointed out: inasmuch as “by the wonderful counsel and might of the Godhead we are brought to the inheritance of the life to come,” in which the children of God will enjoy “perfect peace” under “God their Prince.”
When it was said, “Behold a Man, the Orient is His name,” reference is made to the same, as in the first, viz. to the mystery of the Incarnation, by reason of which “to the righteous a light is risen up in darkness” (Psalm 111:4). (Reply to Objection 1).
Many people today mention only the text from Isaiah, which indicates that He will be called Emmanuel, but as St. Thomas notes there were a many names and titles ascribed to the Messiah. This alone serves as a caution to those who take one text of the Scriptures and elevate its importance.
The key to interpreting Scripture is doing so within the context of the entirety of Scripture. One must read Scripture with the Church, not apart from it. God is not in the business of contradicting Himself.
The prophetic texts do speak of naming the Messiah in various ways. Given the variety of names it is clear that God does not intend that one name or title should prevail, but rather that all of them should complete a kind of picture of Him who comes to save us.
So, the name “Jesus” means that God comes to save us. Therefore, He is wonderful. He is God-hero, Father forever, and Prince of Peace. He is Emmanuel, God with us. The Light of His glory is like the light of ten thousand suns rising in the East (the Orient) to cast out the darkness.
“Jesus” (God saves) pretty well sums it up!