Jesus’ Name and Reality, and Ours, January 3, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Retreat for the Seminarians of Cathedral Seminary House of Formation, Douglaston, NY
At Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington, NY
Mass for January 3 (Friday before the Epiphany)
Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus
January 3, 2014
1 Jn 2:29-3:6, Ps 98, Jn 1:29-34

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click here: 


The following was the text that guided the homily: 

Today we celebrate the feast of Jesus’ holy name. It’s basically the feast of his circumcision when he, like every Jewish male formally receive his name. As we read two days ago, at the end of the Gospel for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, St. Matthew told us, “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” That name was Jesus, a name that means “God saves” and in the readings today for January 3, we see precisely how God saves.

In the Gospel John the Baptist points him out and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John had been baptizing bodies with water as a sign of repentance and the need for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus would come after him and institute the Sacrament of Baptism, which would bring about what John’s baptism only symbolized. He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, a baptism that would reach and cleanse the soul.

But it would do more than that. It would give the one baptized not only a new name in Jesus but an unbelievable reality. St. John points to the consequence of baptism in the first reading: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.” It’s a mind-blowing reality that we are even able to be called God’s sons and daughters. We’ve heard the expression so many times that we’re children of God that what it means can escape us. Imagine for a second if today Bill Gates adopted you and made you heir to all his billions, or Queen Elizabeth pushed for a change in the laws of England so that she could adopt you as her son and you could be the next King. Then multiply that by a factor of infinity and you still don’t even get close to how it would have sounded to the ears of John’s listeners.

On this feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, we first ponder our name. We are called God’s sons. We are labeled Christians, or little Jesus Christs. If every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth at the name that is above every other name, then imagine our dignity being associated with that name because in him we have been both saved (Jesus) and anointed (Christ). Here in this Diocese of Rockville Center, we remember in a special way Bishop William Murphy whose episcopal motto is “no other name,” pointing to the fact that there is no other name but Jesus’ in all of creation by which we are saved, and we rejoice in that salvation and rejoice in that name!

Earlier today, Pope Francis visited the Jesuit mother Church in Rome called the Gesù, where the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the greatest Jesuit missionary of all time, St. Francis Xavier are buried. The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is the patronal feast of the Society of Jesus. Pope Francis helped the 350 Jesuits who concelebrated with him to ponder what it means to be called a “Jesuit.” “”We, Jesuits,” he said, “we want to be honored with the name of Jesus, under the military banner of the cross, and that means to have the same feelings of Christ. It means to think like Him, to love like Him, to see [things the way He sees them], to walk like Him. It means doing what He did, and with the same sentiments He had, with the sentiments of His heart.” To be a Jesuit, in other words, means to seek to live up to the reality of the holy, saving name they bear.

We are all called to seek to live up to the name of little Christians, to the reality of representation that’s supposed to denote. I remember back in 2005, the year after Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, I spend several hours with Jim Caviezel, who had come to speak to the first Boston Catholic Men’s Conference that my twin brother had organized. At one point as I was deftly maneuvering through a Boston traffic jam, he asked, “Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “How do you do it?” I thought he was asking me how I manage driving through Boston rush hour. But he instead asked, “How do you live with the reality that when people look at you, they expect you to behave just as Jesus did?” It was obviously a transition he was still going through. Once you’ve depicted Jesus Christ on the big screen — as all the actors who have done so likewise attest — everybody expects you no longer to be yourself but to be Jesus. When you go out into a restaurant, they expect you to tip with Jesus’ generosity. When you’re driving in traffic, they expect you to turn the other blinker and always let them in. We had a nice and deep conversation about the theme. But it’s a crucial question for all of us as Christians and even more so as priests and God-willing future priests. We all bear the name of Jesus, we all bear his title Christ and the gift of holy unction to which it points. There needs to be a correspondence between our life and behavior and His, just as the Pope said this morning, that we must think, love, see, and walk like Jesus. When we do, it’s noticed. And when we don’t it’s noticed even more.

Friedrich Nietzche, the terribly destructive 19th century German philosopher who pronounced God dead and said if he weren’t dead, we’d have to kill him, whose atheistic thoughts on the will to power had a profound influence on the Nazis, once said that when he was younger he may have been able to believe in a redeemer if he had ever met someone redeemed. Likewise, Mahatma Ghandi was once asked by some excited Christians whether he was thinking of becoming Christian himself, because he was constantly recalling with reverence Jesus’ words and example. Ghandi quickly deflated their hopes by saying he had no desire to be a Christian. He clarified, “I love your Christ, but I don’t love your Christians, because your Christians are nothing like your Christ!”

We who bear the name Christian, we who are followers of Jesus, and especially we who are or one day may be ordained in the person of Christ all bear not only a tremendous privilege, but also a serious responsibility, to give authentic witness to the saving power of that name!

If bearing Jesus’ name is not rich enough, St. John goes on to say, however, that that isn’t even the half of it. We are not just called sons and daughters of God, but that is what we have become through the regeneration of baptism! We really are God’s beloved children. But that, too, he says is just a foretaste of an even greater reality: “What we shall later be has not yet been revealed but we know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

The renowned Presbyterian Scripture commentator William Barclay shares a Scottish paraphrase of this passage that it seems he himself composed that does justice to the wondrous reality behind St. John’s words: “Behold the amazing gift of love / the Father hath bestow’d / On us, the sinful sons of men, to call us sons of God! / Concealed as yet this honor lies / by this dark world unknown, / A world that knew not when he came / ev’n God’s eternal Son. / High is the rank we now possess / but higher we shall rise; / though what we shall hereafter be / is hid from mortal eyes. / Our souls, we know, when he appears / shall bear his image bright; / for all his glory, full disclosed, shall open to our sight. / A hope so great and so divine / may trials well endure; / and purge the soul from sense and sin / as Christ himself is pure!”

We shall see Christ and shall become like him. In order to see him we have to be pure of heart, because only the pure of heart shall see him. That’s why St. John says that everyone who has this hope based on Christ keeps himself pure like Christ is pure. And the purer we are in our intentions, in our actions, in our interactions, the more people are able to see God working in us and through us come to recognize the Christian dignity they are called to bear or invited to receive.

We need to constantly implore the Lord for that gift of purity of life. The gnostics to whom St. John was writing thought that, because spirit is good and matter is evil, then it really doesn’t matter what you do in the body. So many of them lived lasciviously. True Christians, on the other hand, John insisted, allow the Lamb of God to take away their sins, allow him to fill them with himself and his grace upon grace so that we may become sharers in the divinity of him who humbled himself to share our humanity. To remain pure is not the result of our will-power alone or even principally. It’s the gift of the power of Jesus’ name.

Pope Francis alluded to his point back on April 5 in a daily Mass homily. After stressing, “Only the name of Jesus is our salvation, only he can save us and no one else,” he described a story of a father of eight who worked for three decades for the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. “Before going out, before going to do any of the things he had to do”, the Holy Father recalled, “he would whisper to himself: ‘Jesus!’. I once asked him ‘Why do you keep saying Jesus?’. ‘When I say Jesus’, this humble man answered me, ‘I feel strong’, I feel able to work because I know he is beside me, that he is preserving me’”. This man, the Pope said, “had not studied theology. He had only the grace of Baptism and the power of the Spirit. His witness did so much good for me.” Likewise we need to call on the name of Jesus, we need to call on the person of Jesus, who will make us strong and pure.

Jesus himself promised us that if we asked the Father for the gift of living coherently with our exalted dignity and title he would grant it. During the celebration of the first Mass, Jesus told he apostles and through them us, “Anything you ask the Father in my name, he will give you!” Pope Francis, in a May 11 daily Mass homily, commented on these words:

We are called to become one with Jesus through his name. Pope Francis has pondered this reality of the power of Jesus’ name and why we pray through his name. “What does ‘in my name’ mean? It is a new element that Jesus reveals at the Ascension. Jesus, in rising to the Father, left the door open. Not because ‘he forgot to close it,’ but because ‘he himself is the door.’ He is our intercessor; so he says: ‘in my name.’ His wounds are his prayer of intercession to the Father,’ asking us to trust in his victory over death.” To pray in his name is to unite oneself with the prayer of Jesus’ whole life, to become one with his saving prayer.

That’s what happens in every Mass, where by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the person of Jesus, we make this prayer to the Father as body united to Head, as bride united to Bridegroom. This is the prayer that distinguishes us as Christians. This is the prayer that makes us little Christs not just in name but in fact and strengthens us to live in such a way that people are reminded us the One whose name we are so privileged to bear. And it’s through this sacrifice, through this joint prayer, that we “higher [still] shall rise” to see him face and face and come to be like him who so humbly lowered himself out of love to become like us.

Jesus! + May his holy name be ever in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts. Amen!

These were the readings for today’s Mass: 

Reading 1
1 JN 2:29-3:6

If you consider that God is righteous,
you also know that everyone who acts in righteousness
is begotten by him.See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.
Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure,
as he is pure.Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness,
for sin is lawlessness.
You know that he was revealed to take away sins,
and in him there is no sin.
No one who remains in him sins;
no one who sins has seen him or known him.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 98:1, 3CD-4, 5-6

R. (3cd) All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.
Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done wondrous deeds;
His right hand has won victory for him,
his holy arm.
R. All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation by our God.
Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
break into song; sing praise.
R. All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.
Sing praise to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and melodious song.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
sing joyfully before the King, the LORD.
R. All the ends of the earth have seen the saving power of God.

JN 1:29-34

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
He is the one of whom I said,
‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’
I did not know him,
but the reason why I came baptizing with water
was that he might be made known to Israel.”
John testified further, saying,
“I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky
and remain upon him.
I did not know him,
but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me,
‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain,
he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’
Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.”