Thursday, December 18, 2008

What's In a Name?

This is my LifePoints column which appeared in the religion section of the Huntsville Times on Friday, December 19, 2008.

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us'." - Matthew 1:23

In the English language, we have some strange names for things. I have often wondered why we call certain appliances "hot water heaters." Don’t they heat cold water, not hot? More disturbingly, at airports we park planes at a "terminal", and pilots announce each landing as a "final approach." I try very hard not to think about what that could mean.

Yes, names can be quite revealing. As Christmas approaches, I have been pondering the two names given for Jesus before he was born. While Christmas reminds us of his many grand titles (like Messiah, Counselor, Mighty God, and Prince of Peace), there are only two actual names assigned to this little baby. The angel tells Joseph to name the child “Jesus,” and Matthew comments that in doing so, the scripture is fulfilled which names him “Emmanuel.”

As a father myself, I’ve noticed how conspicuously quiet the scriptures are about Joseph. It seems everybody else has a song to sing on that first Christmas, from Mary to Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon. But Joseph? He’s apparently not much of a singer. He gets no credit for performance, poetry, or prophesy, and we can only guess at his fatherly feelings. Yet what little the scriptures say about Joseph concerns naming the baby. He definitely gets that job, and he gets two names to work with. Why two? What could they mean?

The name Jesus means "Savior." I imagine this comes as no surprise to persons of faith, who believe Christ came to free us from sin. But the name Emmanuel means "God with us." Maybe that’s the name that truly encapsulates the brilliance of Christmas. God is not beyond us, or above us, but with us. That simple name broadcasts a bold belief that because of Christmas, something has fundamentally changed in the way salvation works.

God has crossed over the great divide. The divine has become human, grace infused into the grind. God didn’t just write a memo, make a call, or send his errand boy. He showed up in the flesh. God came to co-mingle with us, pitch a tent down the street, and become one of us. This is the spirituality of the incarnation. And the incarnation might be what is most radical about the Christian faith.

Our God is not content with being as far away as the stars. God is the God who comes. The incarnation changes everything, because in the midst of the mess of our lives, God is with us. The God who escapes our grasp mysteriously shows up when we least expect it. God appears in the eyes of a child, in the warmth of a home, in the poverty of a struggling family, and in the longing for peace.

Have you noticed the way people talk about this year’s season in light of the economic downturn? A few weeks ago, I heard someone say “it’s going to be a dismal Christmas.” Dismal? Do economics really have the power to hijack our holy days? The birth of Emmanuel means God is with us, no matter what. In a world of wars, hate crimes, and economic slowdowns, we live in the stubborn hope that Christmas can still change everything.