Rorate Caeli

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

Some years ago a novel was published to great acclaim despite the difficulty of its thought and despite its taking place in a medieval monastery.  The novel is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  Its most famous line is the last line in the novel: Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus. The translation of this line is somewhat difficult, but it means something like this:  “Yesterday’s rose stands only in name, we hold only empty names”.  What this means is that there is no real connection between the name, the word we use, and what we are trying to refer to by that name.  Names are in the end empty words. This is a  terrible and false understanding of reality itself, and, tragically, is an understanding of reality that is all too common in our culture. 

When we think of proper names, names of people, we associate that name with specific people we know.  And we do not think in terms of that particular name having any significance beyond the particular person who bears that name.  My parents debated what to name me at my birth.  My father wanted to name me Gennaro in homage to my grandfather, Gennaro.  My mother strongly resisted this on the grounds that I should have a “normal” American name so that I would fit in more with the American culture.  My mother won that battle, and I was named Richard.  There was no particular reason why she chose Richard. She just liked it.

Today’s feast of the Holy Name of Jesus has nothing to do with naming as an aesthetic or family choice.  The name of the Child born in a stable in Bethlehem was named by God through a message of an angel to the Child’s mother nine months before his birth.  Mary’s Fiat at the Annunciation embraced not only her willingness to do the Will of God in this most amazing and perplexing way.  Her Fiat also embraced who this Child would be. The name of the Child and his very being were bound together in the reality of the Child’s very being—who He was and was to be as a child born into this world.

The name, “Jesus”, is the English equivalent of the Latin “Jesu”, which came from the Greek “Iēsous” a transliteration of the Hebrew “Yeshua”, an ancient Jewish name which means “Yahweh saves” or “is salvation”.  We see in this the significance of the bestowal of the name Jesus on the Child born in Bethlehem. His name and who He is are inseparable. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians: “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  And ever since then the very name of Jesus has been understood and practiced as a form of prayer, so that the very sounding of his Holy Name invokes not only the power of God but most importantly the love of God for each of us and for all of mankind.  So many saints have understood the power of the Holy Name of Jesus. Those that immediately come to mind are St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Bernadine of Siena, and St. Ignatius of Loyola.  

We are still in Christmastide.  Let us use this time to deepen our understanding of that Person who lies at the heart of our faith whose name is Jesus.  In a few days we will celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany.  The three Magi did not know the Child’s name whom they had traveled so long to see. But they knew who He was by the light of a star, and they knew that they were in the presence of the source of that Light, and in faith they prostrated themselves before the Child, because they knew by a miracle of faith that He came as the Savior of the world: He who saves—Jesus.

I close with an English translation of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s hymn, Jesu dulcis memoria, a most fitting meditation for the beginning of the year of our Lord Jesus, 2022.

Jesu, the very thought of Thee

With sweetness fills the breast;

But sweeter far Thy face to see,

And in Thy presence rest.

Nor voice can sing, nor heart can frame,

Nor can the mem’ry find

A sweeter sound than Thy blest name.

O Savior of mankind.

O hope of every contrite heart,

O joy of all the meek,

To those who fall how kind Thou art!

How good to those who seek.

All those who find Thee find a bliss

Nor tongue nor pen can show;

The love of Jesus, what it is,

None but His loved ones know.

Jesus, our only joy be Thou,

As Thou our prize will be:

Jesus, be Thou our glory now,

And through eternity.

Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla

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