In the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, the power of a name was very real. It was widely assumed that the essence of a being resided in its name, and that if people could gain access to the names of supernatural beings they could manipulate them into serving their own purposes. Magicians and sorcerers abounded who promised to reveal their secrets to common people. Their spells often included dozens of divine names. It was hoped that at least one of them would hit the mark and force a supernatural being to bring about the desired result.
The Biblical traditions have remarkable stories demonstrating the power of naming. God creates the world by naming “light,” “day,” “night,” and “sky.” The act of naming is the first vocation of Adam, who names the living beings that inhabit the earth. God calls Abram and Jacob and then renames them Abraham and Israel – names which mark a dramatic shift in their life’s trajectory, a new orientation, a new mission, a new way of life bound in faith to the God who named them. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls his flock by name and teaches them the power of his own name. Some of his followers, such as Peter and Paul, are given new names to mark a particular charism or mission. Early Christians called upon the name of Jesus Christ for healing and deliverance. Today the church remembers the power of naming when a child is christened at Baptism; not only is the child given its Christian name but from that point on it bears the name, “child of God,” which reflects the essence of its true nature and identity.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name, which marks the occasion when Mary and Joseph presented their newborn son to God in the Temple, to be circumcised and to receive the name of “Jesus.” The Hebrew word Yeshua that we translate as “Jesus” or “Joshua” means “God saves and helps.” Jesus’ parents had been given that name by an angel who promised that through this child God would bring salvation to the world.