In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet asks the question: “What’s in a name?”. As I’ve been reading Walter Wangerin’s excellent Advent devotional, Preparing For Jesus, he makes a rather obvious connection between Abraham and Sarah and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. Somehow, I had never seen the connection before, and it got me thinking about some of the names of the people in the Christmas narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

  • Zechariah (זְכַרְיָה, transl. Zcharya, “God remembers”) – It recalls the beginning of Exodus, where God tells Moses that He has heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and has not forgotten about them. But even more so, as Wangerin points out, God remembers the promises He made to Abraham. Just as Abraham and Sarah were old and childless, so too were Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. Yet God heard there prayers for a child and answered them in His own time. God instituted the old covenant through Abraham and Isaac, promising to bless all nations through them. Through Zechariah and John the Baptist, God ushers in the new covenant and fulfills that promise.“Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard.” (Lk 1:13a)
  • Elizabeth (אֱלִישֶׁבַע‎, transl. Elisheva, “God is abundance“) – Elizabeth had been barren and childless throughout her married life. But after the age where she should have been able to bear children, God have her a son, John. She went from an empty nursery to know the fullness of motherhood. “And behold, even Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.” (Lk 1:36)
  • John (יוחנן, transl. Yohanan, “God is gracious”) – John the Baptist served as the forerunner for Jesus. John preached that the kingdom of God was at hand and with repentance, God would bless the people His grace. “Make ready the way of the Lord” (Mt. 3:3)
  • Mary (מִרְיָם, transl. Miryam, “Beloved”) – In the angel’s salutation, Mary is told that she has been favored by God. Elizabeth tells her that she blessed among all women. When Joseph found out she was pregnant, he wanted to divorce her quietly rather than have her stoned, because he loved her. Even on the cross, Jesu, out of love for her, asked his disciple John to take care of her. She was indeed “beloved” by those around her. “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.'” (Lk 1:30)
  • Joseph (יוֹסֵף, transl. Yosef, “The Lord will increase”) – Joseph got the awesome responsibility of raising Jesus. He watched him grow physically and mentally. In accomplishing God’s will on the cross, God’s kingdom increased and even the definition of God’s people increased, by removing the distinction between Jew and Gentile. “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” (Lk 2:52)
  • Herod (הוֹרְדוֹס‎, transl. Hordos, “Song of the warrior” or “heroic”) – We may know him as “Herod the Great,” and with that epithet associate him with a powerful hero, but the truth in the warrior part was shown with the many bloody murders he was responsible for, even killing his own wife and 2 sons, as well as the slaughter of infants around Bethlehem after Jesus was born. “Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” (Mt 2:16)
  • Gabriel (גַּבְרִיאֵל, transl. Gavri’el, “The Strength of God“) – Jesus may have arrived in Bethlehem as a helpless baby, but God’s power is displayed throughout the Nativity story in Gabriel. He foretells the births of John the Baptist and Jesus to Zechariah and Mary. Although not named as such, he was probably also the angel that appeared to Joseph to confirm the truth of Mary’s condition and to warn him of Herod’s murderous intentions. Gabriel is also a link to the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus, having appeared to Daniel. “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” (Lk 1:19)
  • Simeon (שמעון, transl. Shimon, “He who listens [to God’s Word]”) – Simeon had been a faithful follower of God all of his life and the Lord told him he would see the salvation of Israel before his death. The Spirit of God directed him to go to the Temple to find him. He was closely attuned to God’s voice and prophesied over Jesus and his family. “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple.” (Lk 2:26-27a)
  • Anna (חַנָּה, transl. Channah, “Favored”) – Like Simeon, Anna had been a faithful servant and prophetess of God. Widowed at an early age, God showed his favor on her at the end of her life by allowing her to spread the news of Jesus’ birth. “She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Lk 2:37b-38)

As fitting as those names are, there is a Name higher than all the others in our story. None of the other names would matter, were it not for the arrival of Jesus (יֵשׁוּעַ, transl. Yeshua, “God saves”). He is the culmination of God’s promises to His people. We celebrate His birth at Christmas, but the true meaning of Jesus’ coming is evident at Easter. Through His vicarious death and resurrection, we are freed from slavery to sin and its penalty. “So that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Php 2:10-11)

So what’s in a name? “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” That rose might be the Rose of Sharon, or we could celebrate this sweet-smelling flower with the old carol:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.