What’s in a name? When I was in seminary, my middle name understandably got a lot of attention. Professors and students alike at the Presbyterian school I attended got a kick out of a guy named James Calvin Davis in their midst, wondering aloud whether it was foreordained (get it?) that I would be called to ministry with a name like that. The reality is, at least on the surface, much different. I am proud to be named after both of my grandfathers, James Kermit McCullough and Calvin Davis. But the ironic part is that the man who gave me the name that tickles my fellow Presbyterians so much was, in many ways, the opposite of the sixteenth-century churchman—not so much pious and learned as a rough-around-the edges coal miner from which I get both my appreciation for blue-collar values and a legendary Davis temperament.
And yet that name of which I am proud has become more to me than just a testament to my grandfather. Without it, I am a generic placeholder; “James Davis” is one level up from “John Doe” on the scale of nondescript monikers. But with it, I am James Calvin Davis, professor and Reformed Christian theologian. James Calvin Davis has become an symbol of who I am, of what I consider myself to be.
Correspondingly, when people get my name wrong, it feels like more than a simple mistake. It’s only slight exaggeration to say that it feels like a bit of a wound. Growing up a “James,” I spent my childhood having to correct people when they presumed to call me “Jim.” There’s nothing wrong with the name “Jim,” but it’s not what my parents named me. Calling me “Judy” is as accurate as calling me “Jim.” That’s not who I am. I am James. It’s a presumption I still encounter as an adult, though a little less so. And it’s a burden I’ve inadvertently passed on to my younger son, by insisting on keeping his given Korean name in a culture that is frequently mystified by it. Kisung now struggles with the same burden of people getting his name wrong, and it bothers him, because to call him something other than Kisung is to not get him. Kisung is who he is.
What’s in a name? Some of us may be ambivalent about our names, but I suspect for many of us, our names are who we are. They come to capture the essence of who we are, to ourselves and to the world.
We spend the season of Advent waiting for One who goes by a lot of names in the biblical tradition. And like us and our names, the names of the One on whom we wait declare who he is. Those names shape our wait and welcome of him. They say something of the different things different ones of us look for in him, and the different experiences we receive when he arrives to us at Christmas.
We channel the words of the prophet Isaiah, for instance, who foretold of a child to be born who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. And in those names we restore our confidence that this One on whom we wait is the way to wisdom and direction, righteous strength, peace and virtue in our time. We read of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary the coming of her child, who will be called the Son of the Most High, a King of David, the Holy One, the Son of God. And we hear in those names the promise of the One who ensures that God still rules, and who shows the way to true liberation and life. He will be called Jesus, says the angel, a name which literally means “God saves,” and with that name we witness to him as the way to salvation from the self-defeating tendencies that ensnare us and the human community.
We sing the powerful song of Mary, who has her own names for the child she carries: Mercy, Strength, and Joy. We hear her prophecy that the child on whom she waits will defend the lowly and agitate the powerful, that he will feed the hungry, help those who are desperate, and provide for those who need. In her names for Jesus, we discover a reminder of God’s solidarity with us, the Good News that God is not distant, but meets us in the hard moments in which we find ourselves. And when we lyrically plead with the ancient hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” we invoke that name to assimilate Mary’s expectation as our own—the prayer that God will be with us, as we need, in this One on whom we wait this season.
These are names that the traditions of faith give for the One on whom we wait in Advent. Then, in the story we tell on Christmas night, on a dark Bethlehem night, the skies erupt with light and laughter and the heavenly choirs give him one more name—the name above every name: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Christ, Messiah, the Anointed One. The One through whom the world will know redemption and salvation. The One who will show to humanity the way to healing and wholeness. The One who will reconcile us to our God. To us is born the One who is named Christ the Lord.
In this ultimate name, we can hear the echoes of all the other names. This name invites us to seek and find what we need in the One on whom we wait. What do you need? Wisdom, peace, inspiration, solidarity, strength, friendship, joy, provision, wholeness, salvation? All reside in this one name, Christ the Lord. This one name signifies majesty with intimacy. It signals transcendence and immanence. It genuflects to the Son of the Most High when we need strength, and gestures to Emmanuel—God with us—when we need intimate presence.
In 1930 Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached these words to a congregation in Cuba:
We all come with different personal feelings to the Christmas festival. One comes with pure joy as he looks forward to this day of rejoicing, of friendships renewed, and of love…. Others look for a moment of peace under the Christmas tree, peace from the pressures of daily work…. Others again approach Christmas with great apprehension. It will be no festival of joy to them. Personal sorrow is painful especially on this day for those whose loneliness is deepened at Christmastime…. And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, Jana Reiss ed. [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010], 54-55)
Bonhoeffer recognized that we’re all human beings with different stories—some of them happy and some of them hard—and that those stories shape how we approach this Christmas season. But no matter our stories, no matter the state of our souls at Christmas, Christmas still comes. Christmas insists on coming. And that persistence makes even the hard Christmases sources of hope.
For whatever we crave, whatever we need in order to be whole, whatever we consider good, can be found in the reminder this season gives, that in the One called Christ, God is with us, and God’s grace prevails. In the midst of whatever darkness we bring to our waiting—our public anxiety, our private struggles, our conflicts, our hopelessness, our lostness or loneliness or pain—in whatever dark night we bring to our Advent vigil, God breaks through with familiar newness in the announcement of the promises in this name.
And it’s not just the rehearsal of the Christmas stories that reminds us of the power of that name. We see it in Christmas people, too. God breaks through in the gathering of families at this special time of year. God breaks through in the embrace of friends who reach out to those feeling the bite of loneliness or sadness at this time of year. God breaks through in those who serve the hungry and homeless in Christ’s name, but God also breaks through in the authentic goodness of those who don’t know Christ’s name, or who frankly don’t have much use for that name. The name of Christ, announced by this season that bears it, reassures us that God is breaking through wherever we see signs of life and love and laughter in the world around us, whether in angelic display on a knoll in Bethlehem or in seemingly mundane moments of kindness and comfort in our time and places.
What’s in a name? Whatever you seek, but above all, the Good News that God is with us, and that God’s grace prevails. To you this day is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, the testament to the Good News that God is breaking through in the midst of humanity, with life and love and laughter. May we each find what we are looking for this Christmas season in that Good News, in his name.