There are a lot of reasons moving Epiphany to the nearest Sunday is a bad idea–it’s why no one really gets what the 12 Days of Christmas are, for one thing–but surely today’s proper feast is one of the bigger ones. By celebrating Epiphany today, we skip out on celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name. One of the blessings of the TLM is that we don’t lose out on this fine feast.
Why is the Feast of the Holy Name a big deal? I’m glad you asked!
For one thing, the Holy Mass for this day has some of the shortest readings: St. Peter declaring the power of Christ’s name in Acts, and the single verse in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus receives His name at His circumcision. There’s the pragmatic side, of course: Father has less to butcher and belabor with his spotty Latin, should your pastor be so afflicted (May God bless his work all the more!). But there’s a spiritual shock value worth exploring as well.
Not every prayer needs to be a long prayer; not every reading needs to be a long one. The six verses we hear proclaimed in this Mass are powerful all on their own and need no extra narrative. “Wait, that’s it?” when Father finishes the super-brief Gospel is our wake-up call to pay attention. It’s not as easy as it sounds; in its own way this single verse is just as hard to concentrate on as epic parable, creation, or passion readings.
This is the Feast that reminds us that “Jesus!” is one of the greatest prayers ever given to us, expressing all at once every cry of the heart and need of the soul. It does mean “God saves,” after all, and those two words can be applied to just about anything in any way. It’s a great psalm compressed into a single word. Heck, it’s the book of Psalms compressed into a single word. Or all of salvation history, whichever strikes your fancy.
Without this feast, when exactly are we reminded to keep the forgotten commandment?
I speak, of course, of the second, which I guess is really just more of a suggestion or a nice idea and probably means I need to behave when I get around to going to mass or something. It’s the Second Commandment: You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain. It’s on the same list that “suggests” we not murder people. It’s a Big Deal.
Once you have some reverence for the Holy Name, it’s shocking how often people casually blaspheme it. In terms of sheer volume, I think it’s got to be the commandment broken the most often in American society. Of all the things you’ve got to convince kids about when you teach theology, this might be the toughest sell. To them it’s like saying ball point pens are a grave evil. I suspect most well-intentioned, God-fearing Catholics don’t even bother confessing it when they go to confession, even if they will spend forever talking about how they are angry or don’t like people or whatever, things that don’t explicitly show up in the Ten at all.
We need to be reminded of the power of the Name because God talks about it incessantly in the Old Testament. He promises to make a name for Abraham’s children; He reveals His name to Moses; David promises that the His name shall be magnified on earth forever. His Name is so holy that the Israelites take to calling Him “Name!” Go read some psalms and see how often it turns up. And read some prophets–and shudder when God declares that His name has been blasphemed among the nations because of the failures and malfeasance of His people. The Name is basically the Story.
We need a feast that shows us the divine power of names. Adam’s first God-like action? Naming the animals. God spoke the world into existence; Adam spoke the identity of the animals into existence. In Genesis 1 God creates all kinds of things but they have no names (not even Adam). In Genesis 2 He Names, and makes Adam a Namer–“the name Adam gave to each living creature is its name still.” These first names were labels, designating kinds and sorts and genera and species.
This divine action takes on new significance when Adam names a human, with all the haeccitas that person implies (sorry, the Franciscan in me slips out every now and then). The full sense of name, seen in “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” touches upon person and calls it forth. Every pagan mystical tradition that builds a magic around the power of naming holds a key reflected glory of the Gospel. Names touch self where labels touch kind.
Every time we have children and name them we do what God did to Adam in the Garden. It is an indispensible completion of the biological act of reproduction: by Naming children we begin to create who they are over and above what they are. And, to bring this flight of fancy back to my theme, God has a Name. And He gave it to us.
That’s what we celebrate today. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).