In the commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and handed down to us, we are told to honor the name of God. It is a name used in prayer and as a blessing, but it is, unfortunately, all too often these days used in vain or as a curse. Nowadays we hear not only the word “God” invoked in negative ways, but also the name of Jesus, the name of God born of the Virgin Mary.
While most of our liturgical celebrations throughout the year focus on biblical events or the lives of the saints, on Jan. 3 is honored the name of Jesus, observed as an optional memorial. Why should we celebrate and honor the name of Jesus with a feast? Here are a few reasons:
1. A Name Reverenced by All
St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Philippians, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, / of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (2:10). The name of Jesus was first spoken by an angel and is the cause of adoration by the heavenly court. It is a name reverenced especially during the Mass, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal instructs the priest to bow his head at the mention of Jesus’ name (see No. 275). It is a name that evil fears, and when invoked can cast out demons. We honor and celebrate the name of Jesus because the name of God deserves reverence. By celebrating this feast, we seek to make reparation for the irreverent use of God’s name and restore it to proper dignity.
2. It Is the Name by Which We Are Saved
The angel tells St. Joseph to name the child Jesus because he will save us from our sins (see Mt 1:21). By His incarnation, God made man takes on a name indicating he comes to save us. Jesus becomes the source of our salvation. Since apostolic times, the name of Jesus has been preached and proclaimed. First, by the apostles as they sojourned on their missionary efforts, then by their successors who sought to evangelize, by various missionaries who brought the name of Jesus to the New World, and by teachers of the Faith who sought to combat heresy. We celebrate a feast in honor of Jesus’ holy name because it has been spoken throughout the world, and when proclaimed to those who have never heard His name, lives are changed.
3. Many Have Died Pronouncing the Name of Christ
Those who have worked as missionaries to spread the name of Jesus have often suffered because of His name. In the beatitudes, Jesus foretold that some would be persecuted for His sake (see Mt 5:10). Throughout the history of Christianity, many have shed their blood and died a martyr’s death, some even have professed the name of Jesus on their lips as they breathed their last. Celebrating the Holy Name of Jesus reminds of us these ancestors in the Faith and hopefully encourages us to want Jesus’ name to be our last word.
4. There Is Power in His Name
Jesus powerfully taught that where two or three are gathered in His name, He would be in their midst (see Mt 18:20). People also called upon Jesus by name when asking for a miracle. The blind man cried out, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me!” (Lk 18:38), and with that invocation and further conversation his sight was restored. Demons were cast out of the possessed by Jesus’ name (Acts 16:18; 19:16). Celebrating the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus reminds us that we should pray the name of Jesus in our struggles or when we are anxious, because His name is powerful for those who call upon Him.
5. Many Have Been Devoted to the Holy Name for Centuries
The name of Jesus has been a source of devotion for centuries. In 1274, the Council of Lyons recommended that all the faithful should foster a devotion to the name of Jesus. Many saints also have recommended the devotion, most notably, St. Bernadine of Siena. Fr. Paul O’Sullivan’s book “The Wonders of the Holy Name” gives an exhaustive overview of the countless saints, known and unknown, who promoted devotion to the name of Jesus.
One of the most public displays of devotion to Jesus’ holy name arose out of societies and confraternities dedicated to the Holy Name. While no longer as popular as in days gone by, there are many ways people can foster a devotion today to the name of Jesus. The Eastern Church’s practice of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord, Jesus Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner”) recited many times connects the name of Jesus and invocation for His mercy. The Hail Mary, when split in two parts, hinges on the name of Jesus. St. Louis de Montfort, in “The Secret of the Rosary” encouraged people to add a short phrase there to focus one’s meditation (for example, “thy womb Jesus, born in poverty, Holy Mary … ”). I developed de Montfort’s suggestion in my Rosary devotional “A Rosary Litany.” There is also a Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, and many songs such as “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” or “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” in addition to several contemporary Christian songs.
We celebrate the feast of Jesus’ holy name in order to foster a deep love for His name. If we pray the name of Jesus continually in this life, then it will be His name that we pronounce when we meet our Savior face to face.
Father Edward Looney is a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, WI. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook at @FrEdwardLooney.