Today is the Memorial of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, an optional feastday in the General Roman Calendar. On the day of His circumcision eight days after His birth, He was legally named Jesus, which was the name that the Lord’s angel had announced when He was conceived. The name itself means “YHWH saves” or “YHWH is salvation,” and as the angel explained to Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel “He will save people from their sins.” The very purpose and mission of the incarnate Word of God is contained within His very name: He will deliver men from evil, both that around them and that within themselves.
It seemed odd to me for years that such a prominent aspect of the faith would be commemorated on a feast of the lowest rank – and optionally at that. It defied expectation, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting. But then I learned that prior to 1969 this was a feastday of the 2nd Class (what we today designate a Feast) that was celebrated on the Sunday between the Octave of Christmas (January 1) and the celebration of the Epiphany (January 6). In 1969, Pope Paul VI revised the calendar of feasts and he made the decision to remove this feastday because it was redundant: the Most Holy Name of Jesus is already commemorated in the celebration of the Octave of Christmas (again, it was on the eighth day after His birth that He was given His name). But the liturgical texts for the feast were maintained, and for those who still wish to observe a separate commemoration of the Holy Name, January 3 is set aside for it.
I find this calendrical expectation of mine regarding the reverence of Jesus’ name a fitting commentary on His entire ministry. Through His entire life – and beyond – He defied the world’s expectations. The world may not have been sure what it was expecting; it just knew that He wasn’t it. They expected to see their salvation happen; in reality they were looking salvation in the face, but not seeing it. In his book on the Infancy Narratives, Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI recounts one episode in particular as demonstrating this same irony: the lowering of the paralytic through the roof so that Jesus could heal him.
The sick man’s very existence was a plea, an urgent appeal for salvation, to which Jesus responded in a way that was quite contrary to the expectation of the bearers and to the sick man himself, saying: ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’ This was the last thing anyone was expecting. The paralytic needed to be able to walk, not to be delivered from his sins. The scribes criticized the theological presumption of Jesus’ words; the sick man and those around him were disappointed, because Jesus had apparently overlooked the sick man’s real need.
As we know from the Gospel accounts, Jesus did go on to demonstrate the realness of His claim to forgive sins by also causing the man to walk. But the point was that the healing of the soul had to come first before healing could spread to anywhere else. The relationship with God needed to be preserved before any other relationship – with the body, with other people – could be sustained.
So why am I bringing this all up today? Because every time I see or hear a praise of Pope Francis that simultaneously condemns his immediate predecessors I want to scream and break things.
I saw it throughout 2013 every time Francis’ humility and extroversion was comapred to Benedict’s ceremonial and introversion, or Francis’ perceived liberal progressivism to John Paul’s perceived fundamental conservatism. I saw it at Christmas time in that laughable article that compared this year’s Christmas at the Vatican to last year’s, portraying Francis’ continued eschewing of papal choir dress as a character flaw of the lace- and ermine-clad Benedict. I saw it this morning in an Internet meme proclaiming that Francis “is trying very hard to teach Christians how to be Christian” with a comment that Francis is “not perfect, but still a HUGE improvement,” further implying that being an example of Christian living is a new introduction to the papacy unthought of by his predecessors.
Never mind that Francis is Benedict’s #1 fan, to the point of inviting Benedict to participate in the consecration of the Vatican to Michael the Archangel and to Saint Joseph, finishing Benedict’s final encyclical letter “The Light of Faith” instead of tossing it and writing his own, and referring to Benedict’s company as that of “a wise and learned grandfather” – hence, Papa Frank and Grandpapa Benny. Never mind that all three popes I have mentioned have proclaimed the exact same message, albeit in three different ways. Never mind that without the evangelizing papacy of John Paul II and the educating papacy of Benedict XVI, the ministry of Francis could not be as powerful as it is and will continue to be. No, the world – which, I’m sad to say, has flawed expectations itself of what it means to be a Christian – has made its judgment once again: “We’re not entirely sure if Francis is what we want, but Benedict and JP2 definitely weren’t it, so you go, Frank!”
The function of the papacy has been changing since 1870. It no longer enjoys the widespread political influence that it did through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, yet it has retained the independent sovereignty it requires to effect its mission on God’s terms and not man’s. The Bishop of Rome no longer undergoes a coronation with a three-tiered tiara, but an installation of office and the imposition of a pallium. The Church itself has gone from being an institution to be feared, for better or for worse, to being an institution to be ignored, for better or for worse. In the 1960s, the Blessed John XXIII and Venerable Paul VI presided over the Second Vatican Council to clarify, in this new era, how the Church could operate in order to effect its mission and live out its faith. Then Blessed John Paul II came and spread that message and that faith across the globe not just by letter but in person, bringing both the peace and the power of Christ everywhere he went. After him Benedict XVI spent what conventional wisdom thought would be “JP2, the Epilogue Papacy” making himself a living, breathing, walking, talking Vatican Museum, showing us the depths and riches of the Church’s message and faith both verbally and visually and reinforcing it all in the minds and hearts of everyone affected by the man he called John Paul the Great. And then he gave it all up, resigning his power and pledging obedience to a successor who took a new name to do an old job.
Much like Jesus with the paralytic, the Holy Spirit has guided the Church through clarifying and preserving its relationship with God – its soul – so that its relationship with the world – its body – can be improved and sustained. Those who elevate Pope Francis by casting down Benedict and John Paul are robbing Peter to pay Paul; those who stand on the outside telling the people on the inside how they should act are missing the point. We’re all sick, and need healing. We all need to work on our relationships, above all our relationship with God. And in all things and at all times (not just January 1 or 3), thanks and praise and glory be to God through His Son and His Most Holy Name.
“YHWH is salvation” – and rarely is salvation what we expect.