While the Christmas season ended with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 9, the entire month of January has traditionally been devoted to the Holy Name of Jesus. This is because there is an optional memorial of the Holy Name of Jesus that started the month, on Jan. 3.
Jesus received his name before birth. Luke tells us that the Angel Gabriel told Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Lk 1:31).
Matthew tells us that the “angel of the Lord” also appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take Mary as his wife. “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
This angel not only gave us Jesus’ name but also explained for us what Jesus’ name means, literally, “God saves.”
In Hebrew, Jesus’ name is Yeshua. It comes from two words. The word for “salvation” is shua. It can also mean “a cry for help.” This is the part that became sous in Greek and “sus” in English. Add to that the Hebrew name for God — which was not to be said out loud by devout Jews, but could be abbreviated — was Ye or Yeho. So Iesous, in the original Greek of the written Gospels, was a transliteration of the word Ye-shua or Yeho-shua. This means “God saves.”
However, in Hebrew the name is arranged so that, when spoken, it can actually become a cry to God for help (with the belief that it will be answered). Finally, the name Yeshua (Jesus) can also mean “God heals.” So just by saying Jesus’ name, we express trust in what he can do for us through the power of God.
In the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” we learn that “the name ‘Jesus’ signifies that the very nature of God is present in the person of his son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins. It is the divine name that alone brings salvation, and henceforth all can invoke his name, for Jesus united himself to all men through his Incarnation” (no. 432).
Jesus’ name has been honored since the very beginning of the church. St. Paul, writing around the year 62, told us that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend of those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). However, despite centuries of honoring the name of Jesus (see the 16th-century art on this page, a formal church feast of the Holy Name only dates back to 1721.
By late in the 15th century, Catholic bishops around Europe had instituted local feasts honoring Jesus’ name. Likewise, various saints and religious orders were devoted to the Holy Name, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Bernadine of Sienna and St. John of Capistrano. The Jesuits (who take their name from Jesus),and the Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans, Carthusians and Augustinians all developed celebrations honoring the Holy Name. A Litany of the Holy Name was also prayed in many religious communities from at least the 16th century on.
However, universal celebration of a feast of the Holy Name of Jesus only came into use with Pope Innocent XIII in 1721.
The pope decreed that this feast could be celebrated anywhere from Jan. 1 to Jan. 6 (the feast of Epiphany), or, as a preferred date, on Jan. 2. The Jan. 2 date was set to coincide with the eighth day after Christmas. This is because, on his eighth day of life, Jesus’ parents took him to the Temple for circumcision, as required by Jewish law. As the Gospel of Luke says, “When eight days were completed for his circumcision, the child was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Lk 21). At one time, Jan. 1 was celebrated as the feast of the Circumcision of Christ, but today it is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. However, the Gospel passage above, remains part of the readings for the Marian feast.
With the revisions of the liturgy in 1969, the feast of the Holy Name was removed from the church calendar, but it was later returned as an optional celebration. When the revised Roman Missal (third edition) was released in 2002, the feast was named as an optional memorial and set on the calendar for Jan. 3.
During this cold month of January, it is often a comfort to remember the closeness of God and to also remember that the name of Jesus promises healing and help. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux reminded us: “Are you troubled? Think but of Jesu — speak but the name of Jesus, the clouds disperse and peace descends anew from heaven.”
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; catholicstraightanswers.com; catholicculture.org; aleteia.org; the Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History; and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.