What’s In A Name?
In Act II, scene II of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is on the balcony lamenting the long-running feud between her family, the Capulets, and Romeo’s family, the Montagues. Some ancient grudge that no one remembers keeps the two families at each other’s throats. If you are born a Montague, any Capulet is your enemy. And vice versa. Their names are at war. So Juliet, mooning over Romeo, protests to the night air:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
In one sense, of course, Juliet is absolutely right. If you took away their warring surnames they would still be basically the same people—a couple of infatuated adolescents making bad decisions.
In another sense, though, she’s absolutely wrong. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but its name has power. If I ask you to imagine a flower, you might imagine a daisy or a carnation or any number of other flowers. But if I ask you to imagine a rose, you will not only see a rose in your mind’s eye, you might even smell its fragrance. Names have power.
Do you have a nickname? Most of the time—certainly not always—but most of the time we’re kind of fond of our nicknames. A good nickname is a kind of gift. You can’t make up your own nickname. You really can’t even ask for one. Nicknames just sort of happen, organically, or spontaneously. One day friends or family just start calling you Goober or Dobie or Winkie or Duke and it just sort of sticks.
Nicknames are often descriptive in some way or have a story behind them. And very often the use of that nickname is reserved for a certain circle of people.
My sister has a nickname. It’s the name we in the family have always called her, in fact I sometimes have to think twice to remember her actual name. All her close friends from high school and college know her by that nickname, but everybody else just knows her given name. Her business name. A couple of weeks ago she was Facetiming with her best friend from high school and one of her work colleagues overheard her friend call my sister by her nickname. The colleague said, “Oh! That’s a great nickname! I’m going to call you that from now on.” This left my sister in a quandary. On the one hand, she likes this colleague well enough, but on the other hand, she’s not “that kind of friend.” She’s not part of the circle that uses that name. That nickname belongs to a particular group of people from a particular time in her life. That nickname belongs to family and certain long-standing friendships that are almost family.
Names don’t just label us as individuals, they can also socially locate us. They carry context. My dad, for instance, was known to everyone in his work life and social life as John or J.B. But his brothers and sisters and all his nieces and nephews called him Norman or Uncle Norman. He was always known by his middle among family and among all the people who lived in rural area of the Ozarks where he grew up. But the military and the government and the business world don’t make allowances for people who are known by their middle names. All the standard forms that you have to fill out at one time or another ask for first name and middle initial. Those forms essentially renamed my dad. In doing so, they not only changed his official identity, they changed his self-understanding.
The names people use for us can shape us. They say something about how we relate to each other, about who we are and what we do in the world. My wife’s students call her Dr. B. Her grandsons call her Nani. Same person, different roles, different contexts.
Titles are something like nicknames. If I talk about Professor Studious or Doctor Pokenprobe or Senator Foghorn or Judge Fairheart, for instance, their titles immediately tell you something about them. If nothing else, you know something about their role and function in society. It’s interesting that both officially and in common practice, the title becomes attached to the name and can even function as the name.
Messiah is a title. So is Christ—and let’s be clear, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Originally Messiah and Christ meant the same thing. Anointed. Messiah is Hebrew and Christ is Greek.
Some of the oldest Greek manuscripts of Mathew 1:18 read, “This is how the birth of Messiah happened…” These older manuscripts don’t include the name of Jesus at this point, but everyone understood that Jesus is who the writer was talking about. Ever since Peter’s confession, those who followed Jesus knew him as Messiah or Christ. The Messiah, the Christ, is Jesus. When Matthew introduces this story with the title of Christ or Messiah he is not only telling us that this is a story about the birth of Jesus, but that it’s also a story about God’s mission in the world through the person of Jesus and those around him. It’s a story of how God works through people like us—people with doubts, fears, misgivings, but also hope and grace and a willingness to trust, even if it means suspending disbelief to believe the unbelievable. The name Messiah, Christ, carries all that weight.
This is how the birth of Messiah happened. Mary was betrothed to Joseph. It was named a betrothal, but it was in fact a marriage. It just hadn’t been consummated yet. “But before they came together,” Matthew tells us, “she was found to have a child in her womb from the Holy Spirit.” Mary is pregnant but she’s a virgin. And that circumstance gave her a new name. She will be known forever as Virgin Mary, and just saying her name brings the whole birth story of Jesus to mind.
Because the marriage isn’t consummated, Joseph plans to divorce her quietly and privately so as not to expose her to all the cruelty, ridicule and meanness that she might experience if he were to denounce her publicly. Certainly it’s his right in these circumstance to shame her and her family along with her. That would be regarded as perfectly righteous and just according to their law, tradition, and culture. According to the law, she could even be stoned to death—although that was almost never actually done. But Matthew tells us that Joseph is a just man. A righteous man. And now Joseph has another name: Joseph the Just. Fortunately for both Mary and Jesus, Joseph understands that there is more to being just and righteous than simply adhering to the letter of the law or meticulously observing cultural traditions. Joseph understands that real justice, real righteousness requires compassion and mercy.
The fact that he is unwilling to expose Mary to public shame says something really touching about his affection for her. What he decides to do is, in fact, an act of love in its own way. He decides to divorce her—to release her—but quietly. Privately. He doesn’t want to see her punished.
It’s a good plan. A grace-filled plan, but before Joseph can act on it, an angel intervenes in a dream and tells him to go ahead with the marriage because the child Mary is carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. So now the unborn child has an additional name, a title: Holy.
Joseph agrees to proceed with the marriage as instructed. But the angel wants more from Joseph than just his forbearance. The angel tells Joseph to name the child.
Naming a child is an act of adoption. Even before the baby is born, the instruction to name the child creates a new relationship between the boy and Joseph. Joseph will be his adoptive father. The baby will be Joseph’s adopted son.
Joseph is told to name the boy Jesus. Yeshua. Which means God Saves. That name will guide his destiny. That name will define his relationship to all who follow him throughout history. God saves. Jesus saves.
What’s in a name? Identity. Relationships. History. Even destiny. Messiah is the long-awaited liberator who fulfills the hopes of the Jewish nation. Christ is the savior of all humanity but also the very presence of God in, with and under all things in creation. Jesus bears in his very name the message that God saves.
But Mary’s child, Joseph’s adopted son, has yet another name, and that name may be the most important one for all of us who long for the presence of God. Matthew tells us that he will be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”
To my mind, there is no name more meaningful, no rose as sweet as that one. Emmanuel. God with us.