The first month of the year, January, is named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces – one for looking to the past and the other for looking to the future. Makes sense I suppose, because we all spend considerable time at this time of the year reviewing the past and considering what the future might hold, and what we might do to control what the future might hold – hence our new year’s resolutions.
So you could say that the name we have given to this month that begins the year actually invites us, perhaps naturally, into this two-fold task of looking back and looking forward.
Names are interesting things, aren’t they. Right from our earliest traditions we have held the view that names hold some sort of power, or at least the conferring of a name does. That interesting story in Genesis 2 and that was alluded to in Psalm 8 where all the animals of the world are paraded before Adam and he gives them a name, is thought by many to be a story about the power that humans will hold over all other creatures – the namer is superior to the named.
And the names, themselves can sometimes hold some sort of power over people. What sort of conscious or unconscious power was involved in attracting John Howard into politics when his Mum and Dad named him the middle name Winston?
So, on this the eight day after Christmas, we are reminded of the story of Jesus that would have happened for every Jewish boy in a ceremony called Brit Milah. It was based on the instructions in Genesis 17 about circumcision which was really about nothing more than being marked as God’s people. I am very glad that when we baptise and name children in the church we offer this marking to both boys and girls when the priest signs their forehead while saying “I mark you with the sign of the cross to show that you are marked as Christ’s forever.”
What would have happened here was that the family would gather in the synagogue and through various rituals the boy would be named and then circumcised. Let’s not go into the latter bit, but the naming bit was governed by tradition. They usually give a specific name to a child followed by the father’s name – my name would have been John-bar-Bruce. Sometimes they followed a tradition of giving the first son the Father's name as you might recall from the story of the Circumcision of John the Baptist where the friends assumed he would be named Zechariah but Elizabeth and Zechariah insisted that his name would be John.
As an aside I have always thought there was something missing from the name of that blind man who was called Bartimeus; the first part of his name is missing because without it his name simply means son of Timeus.
Often names are given with a meaning. I grew up knowing that my name John meant a gift from God, and so I was. You may also have an idea about the meaning of your name that has been special to you.
Jesus’ name had a meaning – according to the Matthew story. At his Brit Milah, Jesus would have been name Yeshua-bar-Yoseph and as Matthew records, his name Yeshua would mean “He will save his people”. We name our children sometimes after famous people in our history or family, and Jesus was named after Joshua who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.
Some time ago, someone asked me to think about what they called a “Spirit Name” for myself. They used the term Spirit Name because the suggestion was made in the context of my Spiritual life with God. I have always been inspired by the meaning of that companion of Paul who was sometimes called Barnabus – “son of encouragement”. On another occasion, someone asked me to think of a bird or animal that symbolised something good about me, and I was able to think of the Willy Wagtail or DjittyDjitty as the indigenous people call it. I am sure you have been amazed when you have seen a Willy Wagtail tackle a huge crow that has strayed too near its nest - and it won't give up till the crow leaves.
These two names, along with my birth name, have been a source of great encouragement to me, because they act as a sort of inner compass about what kind of person God and I want me to be. Indeed, I have an icon of Barnabus beside my computer monitor as a constant reminder, and I often wear lapel pins of a WillyWagtail.
As you face the start of a new year I want to encourage to you consider the way your name, or names you might take on, can be an encouragement to be a different and hopefully more Godly person. New Year Resolutions are usually about setting goals and achieving things. I think it is more important to consider choices about how to BE rather than what to achieve.
Close your eyes for a while and think about what name God might offer to you as a source of encouragement about how to BE. You might not get anywhere just now, so take away this idea with you and find a Spirit Name to inspire you this year.