It’s All in the Name: A Reflection for the Feasts of the Holy Name, Epiphany, and Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ

In my journey into grandparenting I’m learning all the things that are new since I became a parent.  When we came along infants slept on their stomachs.  Now its strictly on their backs.  Swaddling is the order of the day.  Not for us as new parents.  The cutest difference, though, is the “gender reveal,” the big announcement, often accompanied by a party, of the to-be baby’s gender and name.  

Since family was scattered all over the place, my son and daughter-in-law came up with a video gender reveal on the afternoon they found out from the doctor.  My son had his gray Converses on the coffee table.  My daughter-in-law had her pink ones at the other end.  In the middle was an unopened box and a balloon question mark.  With great fanfare they opened the box to reveal a tiny pink pair of Converses and then introduced us to Sophie Lynn Sauls.  

It used to be that neither names nor genders were revealed until the day of the birth.  Doing it earlier, I noticed, changed the dynamic.  The baby ceased being a concept, a hope, a dream and became real, a person.  It became easier to relate to her, to talk to her, to sing to her, to read to her.  The words “the baby” disappeared from conversation and were replaced by “Sophie.”  By the time she got here I felt I had known her for months.

Names have a way of making things real, of turning an idea into a reality.  The woman we call Eve first gave names to all the living creatures in the garden.  They became real.  An angel revealed the name and the gender of the holy child to Mary and Joseph.  The big gender reveal and naming ceremony of the Holy Family’s day came eight days after the birth.  We call it New Years, but the religious name is the Feast of Holy Name.  Naming is a very big deal.

At the same time Mary and Joseph were naming the child, a group of sages was traveling from the East to find the one whose birth the star foretold.  They left home in search of what was, for them, merely a hope at the time.  They were sages with an idea, but it was only an idea.  They held on to an inherited wisdom, but one person’s wisdom, after all, is another person’s folly.

When the star came to rest over a stable in Bethlehem, however, that changed.  What had been hoped for, thought of, even prayed for became real.  They learned a name.  These things, which seem so important already took on a different sort of importance.  They became real in the person of a baby with a name—Jesus.  It is an event we call the Epiphany.  

What happened to the sages from the East was a version of what happened to Mary and Joseph when they learned the name from an angel and what happened to me when I watched the gender reveal video.  The name changed everything because it made human relationship, the most important thing of all, real.  Otherwise there can be no love.  Love can only be in a relationship, and I would venture to say that a name is almost a necessity for a relationship.

It is no wonder we reserve the Sunday after the Epiphany for baptisms and we remember the Baptism of Jesus on that day.  Baptisms are a Christian manifestation of a naming ceremony.  Infants used to be handed to the priest for baptism with the instruction, “Name this child.”  It is always a named child (or adult) that is baptized, incorporated into the Christian family, because relationship with that person is what it’s all about.  I look forward to hearing these words, “Sophie Lynn, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.”  Names matter.

It is so with all things.  Caring about poverty is one thing, but it is just an idea.  Caring about a poor person named Moldanado is an entirely different thing.  It is because it opens up the possibility of love.  Caring about peace is one thing.  Caring about a child in Syria named Alya is an entirely different thing.  Caring about justice is one thing.  Caring about a boy named Trayvon is something else again.  Caring about violence in our nation is one thing.  Caring about a murdered deputy sheriff named Zackaria is different.  Caring about education is one thing.  Caring about a girl named Cebisa whose chances in life are severely limited unless she can go to, and stay in, school begins to go beyond caring and opens up love.

People tell me all the time that the only efficient way to deal with poverty, peace, justice, and education (which relates to all of them) are as systemic issues.  I don’t doubt that the systemic part is important, indeed necessary.  I just don’t think it really changes much, or at least for long, without love.  Love is admittedly less efficient.  Love is admittedly slower, harder work.  In the end, though, I’m pretty sure it’s the only way.  

And that is why Love Must Act ( exists.  It’s all in the name.