Jesus’ name has incredible significance as it relates to many different aspects of our faith as well as past traditions. Old Testament Jews assigned to him many names by which to anticipate His coming. While keeping in mind the most holy name of Jesus, it is also crucial to understand these past names of Jesus as it cultivates a deeper appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice as well as His faithfulness to His people. This also helps us as Christians to understand our faith and the weight of the name of Jesus.
To offer some background, Old Testament Jews had anticipated the coming of a Messiah for many years. They anticipated the Messiah, first and foremost, to save them from their “lonely exile” in the captivity of their enemies. Thus, many envisioned the Messiah as a great and powerful king who would defeat their enemies and lead them to the promised land. Instead, their Messiah arrived in a lowly manger in Bethlehem. Their hopes for the great king, the anointed one, the Emmanuel, comes in the form of the lowly infant Jesus Christ.
Jesus has many different names by which to mark His divinity. For example, He is called the “anointed one,” which is a direct translation of Messiah in Hebrew. This name is also used to assign David as king in the Old Testament. Thus, Samuel anoints King David as he assumes the throne. It says in the first book of Samuel that Samuel “anointed him in the midst of his brothers, and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day on”(1 Samuel 16:13). Through this tradition of anointing kings, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon the king to guide him and his kingdom. Jesus proceeds with a promise to bring His people to eternal life and save them through His sacrifice on the cross. Another significant name for the Messiah is Emmanuel, which translates to “God with us.” Isaiah prophesies Emmanuel as a Messiah who would be with His people and save them from their sins. Through these different names, Old Testament Jews anticipate the Messiah in order to prepare for His coming.
While understanding past Jewish tradition, it is important to also understand that God fulfills the hope for a Messiah by breaking their customs. Jesus’ name is significant as His name differs from past Jewish traditions of naming. Past Jewish custom instituted that names can come from a well-respected ancestor, nature, or divine acts or attributes. Joseph instead names Jesus according to the angel Gabriel’s command. In order to reassure Joseph of Mary’s pregnancy, Gabriel tells Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife for that which is begotten in her is by the Holy Spirit. And she shall bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21). Jesus receives His name from divine providence, contradicting past traditions of naming. The prophecy for King David is fully realized through this encounter. Joseph, as a “son of David”, becomes the adopted father of Christ by naming Him. This fulfills the prophecy that Israel’s savior will come from the line of David. While Joseph was a lowly carpenter, this prophecy from God fulfills His promise in a wholly unexpected way but in a way that is perfect. Thus, this pronouncement represents the first example of Jesus breaking past Jewish customs and traditions in order to bring about their fulfillment.
The name of Jesus clearly maintains relevance in modern days. Through a proper understanding of His name and its origins, it's easy to see why it's such an abomination to misuse His name. Especially when receiving the Eucharist, we should realize the grievous wrong of receiving Christ’s Body and Blood then proceeding to slander His name. Yet, in spite of our sins, He came to save us. That sacrifice is renewed at every Mass. Through this renewal, Christ again sacrifices Himself for our sake so that we might partake in the heavenly feast and be renewed.
This also becomes a challenge as we enter a time of religious persecution. Now more than ever, it is important to maintain reverence and respect for Christ and His most sacred name. This is the name for which martyrs died. This is the name which we profess at every Mass. This is the name which gives life through death. The Nicene creed which is recited at every Mass can become a thoughtless habit. But, when one truly dives into its meaning and the historical background, this creed takes on massive significance. This creed sums up our most central beliefs as Catholics and this is the creed that martyrs have upheld as they were fed to the lions. Being a Catholic is not easy. Living for the name of Jesus is not easy either. It requires a constant remembrance of His death and resurrection and a willingness to enter into that suffering and love. For, as Christians, we were not made for comfort but to glorify God and His name.