Rev’d Ann J. Broomell
Christ Church, New Haven
January 1, 2016
Holy Name of Jesus
What’s in a name? I was surprised some years ago when a friend asked me what my second name was. I wondered what she meant for a second and then realized that she had two names she used as a first name, Nancy Mack, and she wondered what my name really was. I had to disappoint her, my parents named me Ann. Very simple, no middle name, just Ann.
When I was a teenager, some of my friends started calling me Annabelle. I cherished that name, from those people. That name was a sign of relationship, and it let me know that within that circle I was loved.
Today we celebrate the Feast Day of the Holy Name of Jesus. Feasts of the Holy Name have been celebrated for centuries in Eastern and Western Christianity. Interestingly, calling January 1 New Year’s Day has only taken place since the 1750s. We remember today that as was the custom, Mary and Joseph would have brought Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth. In the Gospel of Matthew we hear that Joseph was told in a dream to name his son Jesus meaning Yahweh Saves.
As the years passed, the name of Jesus took on many levels of meaning. Some suggest that we might call the Acts of the Apostles, the Book of Jesus. From the descriptions of the ministry of the disciples after Jesus’ death, we see that Jesus’ name was invoked continually. “In the name of Jesus” the good news was preached, people are converted, baptisms take place, people are cured, lives are risked and given. (1)
The name of Jesus has been associated with prayer. In John 16:23 Jesus says “If you ask the father anything in my name he will give it to you.” We acknowledge our understanding of these words as we conclude prayers invoking Jesus’s name.
Here at Christ Church we honor Jesus as we bow when saying the name Jesus, reflecting the understanding from Philippians 2:10: "(I)n the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.”
The name of Jesus itself has come to hold power in itself, with an understanding that the use of the name calls upon the power of Jesus. From the times of the Desert Fathers and Mothers there has been an emphasis on the value of continual prayer, reciting a short verse repeatedly in prayer. While it took five hundred years, eventually the use of short phrases in continual prayer became the Jesus Prayer.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Has been repeated by the faithful since that time. The Jesus Prayer, repeated again and again, was thought to bring the brain to the heart. The repetition would occupy the mind so it didn’t wander. One’s waking hours would be focused on God, drawn into God’s presence, through repetition of the prayer.
Over time the prayer was connected to breathing, repeating Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God as one inhaled Have mercy on me, a sinner as one exhaled. One who prayed in this way was “ceaselessly breathing Jesus Christ.” And the ceaseless invocation of the name would become one with the person, as air is to the body and flame to the wax. (2) The one repeating the prayer would develop a mystical awareness of God’s presence.
You may know of the Philokalia, a book written about a simple man who wanders through the countryside for years repeating the Jesus prayer and has extraordinary experiences of the Holy as he grows and changes. Eventually the prayer becomes “prayer of the heart”, or self-acting prayer. In this way the prayer becomes part of who we are. In times of quiet, the name is there.
I urge you to try this prayer if you haven’t already. Using a name is a sign of relationship. Praying the Jesus prayer will be both a sign of your relationship with Jesus and a stimulus toward the strengthening of that relationship.
The Orthodox Bishop Theopan described the use of the Jesus prayer as “The hands at work, the mind and heart with God.” (3) The prayer is valuable at many levels. It can be used as a walking prayer with each phrase repeated with our steps, right and left, right and left. Said in times of anxiety, while waiting for a medical procedure for example, it brings peace. Said before worship, it brings us into God’s presence. Said while doing repetitive tasks, our mind is occupied, stilled from its constant racing. God is always present, yet with our mind so focused, we can feel and be changed by that presence.
Some want to link it with yoga or meditation. However, it is more than this because it is prayer specifically addressed to God made man, Jesus Christ. The Jesus Prayer is prayed in the context of faith, in the spark of a love for Jesus.
The goal of our lives is conversion and amendment of life so that the Christ within us eventually takes over who we are, our life becoming more and more fully one with Jesus’s life. There is more than one way to attain that goal. By uniting us to Christ, the Jesus prayer can draw you and me to dwell more and more fully in the love that is God. Over time we can be changed into one who so rests in God’s love that it flows through us to others.
May this celebration of the Holy Name be a time of growth in our devotion to God, and to the Christ, and may our devotion continue and deepen our conversion, our transformation. May our prayer focus and direct our lives as we pray in Jesus’ name.
(1) A Monk of the Eastern Church. The Prayer of Jesus New York: Desclee Co., 1967, p. 11 quoted in Hester, Fr. David. The Jesus Prayer: A Gift from the Fathers Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2011, p. 7.
(2) Pseudo-Hesychios, On Watchfulness and Prayer, 196, as found in The Philokalia, Vol. I, page 197, as quoted in Hester, op. cit., p. 13.
(3) Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology London, 1966, p. 63 quoted in Kallistos of Diokleia, Bishop The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality, Oxford, England: SLG Press, 1986, p. 6.