“[Mary] will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”. . . [Joseph] had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus. (Mt 1:21, 25)
From the earliest days of my Catholic education, the good School Sisters of Notre Dame taught my young schoolmates and me to bow our heads when we said the name “Jesus.” That would be true for most people of my era. In my life, however, the sisters arrived a bit late to take credit for being the teachers of this devotion. My mother taught all her children this practice at an earlier age.
A connection to this memory arose in me some years ago when Pope Benedict asked the Christian community to stop saying aloud the holy name of God that had come to us from our Jewish roots, YHWH—often called the tetragrammaton. On August 8, 2008, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in a “Letter to the Bishops’ Conferences on the ‘Name of God’” wrote:
Avoiding pronouncing the tetragrammaton [YHWH] of the name of God on the part of the Church . . . [remains] faithful to the Church’s tradition, [in which] from the beginning, . . . the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.
I reference all this both because I agree with the instruction and because it leads to a consideration of Jesus’ name.
At his Annunciation, the angel told Joseph that he should name the child in Mary’s womb “Jesus,” a name that Joseph knew meant “Savior.” The impact of that name gave Joseph an indication of the reason behind Mary’s incredible pregnancy. The one to be born was the promised one for the people Israel who would deliver and redeem them. One could not exaggerate the importance and holiness of this child. With this message, Joseph had as much information as he would receive, and as much as he needed to know. Then, the story says,
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. (Mt 1:24)
The privilege of naming a child fell to the father. It expressed and symbolized his acceptance of this role for his life.
[Joseph] had no relations with [Mary] until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus. (Mt 1:25)
No words of Joseph appear in the Gospels; few words emerge outside the Scriptures in the few appearances of Joseph. We can easily insist that Joseph prayed, for example, the words of the Psalms as the prayer of Israel, and we could confidently mention others. However, the only word that our Gospels tell us that Joseph spoke was “Jesus.” When Mary bore the child, “[Joseph] named him Jesus” (Mt 1:25). One can feel the appropriateness of this truth. For the rest of his life, Jesus and his mother Mary were the most important values in the life of Joseph. Holding the name of Jesus as our sole remembrance of his voice is powerful. We appreciate the holiness of this name and this person.
I like the traditional practice of bowing one’s head at the name of Jesus. My lack of discipline has caused me to slip in this regard. I feel myself summoned in this season to a surer effort. Those of us who preach can easily visualize the nodding heads of so many older members of a congregation when we say the name “Jesus” in the reading or in the homily. That offers a visual encouragement to be attentive to when we say this holy name and how/why we say it. The Lord is not just another character in the story.
As in so many other matters, Joseph can teach us reverence for the Holy Name. How many times did Joseph speak this name with love and care throughout the course of his life! How many should we?