Saturday, January 3, 2009

Blessed Be His Holy Name!

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Saint Paul in his letter to the Philippians writes: “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11) But devotion to the Holy Name became known first in the monasteries and convents of the Cistercian monks and nuns in the 12th century, and became popular especially through the preaching of Saint Bernardine of Siena, a 15th century Franciscan.

Bernardine used devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus as a way of overcoming bitter and sometimes bloody struggles in the Italian city-states. The devotion was preached by the Franciscans and Dominicans, and it became more wide-spread after the Jesuits began promoting it in the 16th century.

In 1530, Pope Clement V approved a breviary Office of the Holy Name for the Franciscans. In 1721, Pope Innocent XIII extended the feast to the entire Church.

In today’s first reading, John enters one of his mystic moods. He speaks with urgency about something that he cares about deeply. Let us consider them one step at a time.

• If you recognize that God is righteous, you must know that all those who act righteously do so because the righteousness of God dwells within them.
• God’s righteousness dwells within us because we are his children. But the world does not acknowledge our righteousness, because it does not know God.
• We are God’s children even now, but what will become of us has not yet been revealed. When it is revealed, we shall be like God, for we will see him as he is. Meanwhile, we have hope based on his promise, and we strive to be pure, just as God is pure.
• Anyone who commits sin is lawless, since sin is lawlessness. You know that God was revealed in Jesus Christ in order to take away sin. All who remain in him are sinless; those who remain in their sins have not recognized him, or known him.

In today’s gospel, John expands on the last clause of the Epistle. “God was revealed in Jesus Christ in order to take away sin.”

John the Baptist sometimes seems unclear about his own identity, as in yesterday’s gospel, when the priests and Levites ask him “Who are you?” “I am not the Christ.” “Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” “No.” But he is quite clear about the identity of Jesus, although he admits, “I did not know him.” This is a remarkable admission, considering that Jesus was his cousin. Clearly, he must have known him since his childhood, as it is likely that Mary, who travelled from Nazareth to the Judean hill country to be with Elizabeth before John was born, made other visits to her home after Jesus was born. John knew his name, recognized his appearance, and was aware of many facts about him.

But now, when John sees Jesus approaching, he announces: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He admits, “I did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was so that he might be made known to Israel.” John witnesses further: “I saw the Spirit descending on him like a dove, and it remained on him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ Now I myself have seen and attest that this is the Son of God.”

The Holy Spirit can be understood only by analogy, by imagery. Here, the images are “dove” and “lamb”. These images point to the Spirit, but they are not the Spirit. Both images have a rich scriptural history.

• In the Old Testament, the dove is often a symbol of love. In the Canticle of Canticles, the beloved is called “my dove”. In the Psalms, Israel is called the Lord’s dove: “Do not give Israel, your dove, to the hawk” (Psalm 73). In all four gospel, the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus is imaged as a dove (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). The love between the Father and the Son is the effective cause of the Holy Spirit “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
• The image of lamb is present everywhere in both Testaments. In the Hebrew Scripture, it typically refers to a sacrificial victim, the Passover lamb. In the Gospels, Jesus is the Passover lamb. In Revelation, Jesus is referred to twenty-eight times as the lamb. Jesus refers to his disciples as lambs. In John 21:15, he tells Peter, “Feed my lambs.” You and I have a recognizable identity: lawyer, banker, carpenter, priest. We also have family identities: wife, husband; father, mother; aunt, uncle. But before God, the deeper identity is that we are lambs and doves.

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