What's in a Name?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.”[i]

Act II, Scene II.  The scene is the Capulet’s Orchard, and Juliet asks this famous question from her balcony, born of frustration and love.  “What’s in a name?”

       “it is not hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man….

       … Romeo doff thy name;

And for that name, which is no part of thee,

Take all myself.”

What’s in a name?

Today we gather, not because it is New Year’s Day, and not because it used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision, but to rejoice in the Holy Name of Jesus.  And Shakespeare has perfectly framed the question of the day.  What’s in a name?  The question, for Christians, could also be said to be born of frustration and love.  From a certain angle, much of the Biblical record could be said to address this question.  That is to say, much of the Bible could be said to be about the matter of who God is and what God’s name is.  El, Elohim, Adonai, Jehovah, HaShem, – are all versions of names of God in the earlier Scriptures, where also, of course, are to be found the names of other competing gods: Amon, Asherah, Baal, Chemosh, Dagon, Molech are all mentioned.  As are the Greek gods Zeus, and Hermes, and Artemis.

If you frame the question of faith in terms of God’s name, the Bible is the story of discerning that possibly singular fact; and the assertion that God’s own people have struggled to keep track of God’s unutterable divine name, and therefore unable to remain faithful to God.  Look beyond the Bible, and the question of the name of God becomes vastly more complex.  Is God Allah?  Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva?  Something else altogether?  What’s in these names?

Every year, eight days after Christmas, we arrive at a new year, and at this unremarkable proclamation that “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  But what’s in a name?

It is so tempting to join Juliet in the very modern implications of her old question.  It’s not about the name, so let’s not quibble about what we call God, which only results in more careful definitions of what separates God’s creatures from one another, which surely must grieve the heart of God.  Let God doff his name, as Juliet wishes Romeo could.  Why allow semantics to cause so much grief?  “’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;/ Thou art thyself though….”

But the church tells us that today is one of the most important feasts of the year, not to be trifled with, and thereby urges us to take more seriously the question of what’s in the name of Jesus, the implication being that the answer will amount to quite a lot.  Juliet’s question is interesting to us today precisely because it is pressing and insightful, and because the answer, for us, to what’s in a name, has profound meaning, even more than it did for her, despite our frequent desire to join her in dismissal of the question as mere semantics.

Because God wants us to know his name.

It was not always so that God wanted us to know his name, or to use it.  The Scriptures tell us that God preferred to robe himself in mystery and obscurity; and tradition suggests that God’s name should be nearly as un-utterable as his person was un-seeable.  By some point in history, the rabbis discerned that, out of reverence for the Holy One, God’s name should almost never be spoken aloud.  They knew how likely people are to misuse the divine name, and to substitute the true and living God for some other object of lustful desire in their lives: money, power, sex, for instance.  Nothing has changed.  The flip side of the question of the name of God, after all, is the tendency to chase after other gods, after idols - which include money, power, and sex - as well as graven images, or gods that go by other names.

And so an angel visits Mary, and Joseph, too; and instructs them both that the child that Mary will bear shall be called Jesus – the name is not optional.  And “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

The blessed Son of God, the incarnate Word, God-with-us is not shrouded in mystery and obscurity, he is given a name, and that name is Jesus.  And that name matters.  For the biblical problem – namely the question of who God is – has become a deeply vexing problem for our time.  Does God exist at all?  Wouldn’t we rather chase after idols?  Does it really matter what we call God?  These are questions with powerful answers, one way or another.  And while these questions can and should be answered with some sophistication and even finesse, those of us whose lives have been shaped by the angelic message, by the wondrous birth, and by the Cross and resurrection, might claim some confidence when it comes to the answer.  For God’s mission in his creation is accomplished by the person of his Son, and his name is Jesus.

It is difficult for many of us these days, however, to embrace this name, and all that comes with it.  We are sympathetic to Juliet’s point of view; we see how much damage has been done by insisting on this name or that; we know that God’s name has been weaponized so that it has ceased to sound like what it truly is: the name of love incarnate.  When the name of Jesus is thus deployed so that it divides rather than unites, so that it condemns rather than forgives, so that it spells out contempt rather than love, then it is a horribly disfigured name: misspelled, mispronounced, and wrongly written.

But when we give up the name of Jesus, then we forfeit an enormous measure of God’s revelation of God’s self: the inescapable recognition that God does not wish to remain in un-seeable obscurity, needs not relate to his people only through intermediaries, and desires that those who know him should share in the work of building up his kingdom by knowing intimately the person of its king.

And when we give up the name of Jesus, we forget that God’s saving work is not vague and non-specific, not a coating of sugar over the bitter portions of our lives.  No, the saving work of God – the redemption of his people from our sins – is accomplished not vaguely and uncertainly, but specifically by this person Jesus, his Son, who seeks to be known, embraced, and loved by each and every one of us to whom the joy of singing his name has been given!

As the scene unfolds beneath Juliet’s balcony, the girl presses her case with Romeo, in the line we hear earlier:

“… Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name, which is no part of thee

Take all myself.”

To which Romeo replies;

“Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d

Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

“Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d.”  Today we come to hear of love baptized – but in the older, more appropriate form for the God who made a covenant with Abraham: by circumcision, the sure sign of the covenant; and by the giving of a name, an ordinary name that would be forevermore extraordinary for its unfailing identification of the person of God.

For love itself can never in time be new baptized.  And the One who bears the name of Jesus was begotten to be love before there was either speech or language.  His name was given before the earth was made.  His work of saving love determined before time was.

Many there are who would stamp out the name of love to serve their own purposes, who would forget that Holy Name to advance the interests of their own idols, who would squelch the name of Jesus from our ears in favor of other names or no name at all.

But love demands that we remember its true name.  And although Shakespeare certainly never intended his love scene to be played this way, his words provide a useful reflection on this holy name of love, as we ponder what we are doing here on this feast day.  Romeo protests to Juliet: “O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”

Juliet: “What satisfaction can’st thou have…?”

Romeo: “The exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.”

Juliet: “I gave thee mine before thou did’st request it; And yet I would it were to give again.”

“I gave thee mine before thou did’st request it.”  The love of God was given to us long before we ever did request it, and that love has a name: not Romeo, not Juliet, but Jesus.  And whenever we speak that holy Name, may God grant us to hear him assuring us of the love forever enshrined in that name, that he does indeed grant to us again and again: the love of his only Son, begotten before all time, and given the name that is above every name, so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:10-11)


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus 2017

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


[i] All quotes from William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, in The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford, 1914, Act II, Sc. II

Posted on January 1, 2017 .