Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Just Your Average Holy Name

I stayed up too late the other night watching The Big Lebowski. It’s a movie I’ve seen several times—usually only parts at a time. This time, however, it was late enough for most everyone else to be asleep, which meant I got to watch the whole thing. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is one in which a minor character approaches The Dude and his companions to confront them about an upcoming bowling league match. There’s a pretty pointed exchange about “flashing [one’s] piece in the lane,” which leaves The Dude and the audience stunned. As an expression of astonishment, The Dude says, “Jesus!” to which the other bowler replies, “You said it, man. Nobody f***s with the Jesus.” That bowler, played by John Turturro, is named Jesus Quintana, but, in that moment, when referring to himself as “the Jesus” with whom nobody f***s, Turturro uses the Anglicized pronunciation for the name, so it sounds like he might also be referring to our Lord and Savior.

I’ve always liked thinking of Jesus as someone with whom nobody f***s. It’s a funny aphorism that rubs up against our notion of Jesus as both King of Kings and Suffering Servant. And that moment in The Big Lebowski also touches on another curiosity about cultural differences: if you’re going to name your baby “Jesus,” you’d better be of Latin descent.

Who else would name a kid “Jesus?” Earlier this summer, a couple in Tennessee named their baby “Messiah,” which attracted the ire of a local judge, who forced them to change the baby’s name before having that judgment overturned. You can read about that story here. Sure, I’m a clergyperson, which means my kids come under unusual scrutiny, but, ordained or not, I can’t imagine naming a child after Jesus. Yet in Latin culture that’s normal. Why? Because the name Jesus isn’t really all that special.

Not long ago, I noticed my maternal grandmother’s diploma from William and Mary. The whole thing is in Latin, and the translation of the name “William” into the ancient language caught me by surprise: “Gulielmus.” That doesn’t look anything like William, but it’s the same name. Similarly, “Jesus” in English usually refers to one person. But, in most other languages, it’s as common as Jesse or Joshua. In fact, that’s pretty much what “Jesus” means. Our Lord and Savior didn’t have a peculiar name. Surely he was one of hundreds of boys from Nazareth whose head would have turned around when a mother’s voice called out, “Yehoshuah!” So what’s the big deal with Jesus’ name?

Well, his mother and father named him Jesus, as the angel had told them. We read that in the gospel lesson for today, the Feast of theHoly Name. (He was also circumcised, which is a-whole-nother blog post.) But he was also given the name that is above every other name—God’s name. Traditionally, people wouldn’t have written it or said it because of how precious it is, but God’s name is now understood to be Yahweh (sometimes written YHWH). That’s how important God’s name was—so much so that we aren’t even 100% sure what it was because no one said it or wrote it. And we now understand that Jesus, simple though his name was in its day, was also God among us and thus given that holy designation.

Today’s feast reminds me that we worship the God-man, the Word-become-flesh, the incarnate Son of the Father. Each of those designations captures his commonality and his transcendence. He’s just like us but different, too. It’s still Christmas, and it’s worth lingering in that incarnational place at least just a little bit longer. Jesus may not be that common a name in our culture, but it’s not unheard of, yet no one other than him is given God’s own name. 

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