The mystery of the Holy Name of Jesus


The Gospel of Saint Luke relates to us that, eight days after His birth, Jesus, in keeping with Jewish custom, received His name at the time of circumcision:

And after eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised, his name was called Jesus, which was called by the angel, before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)

Circumcision was a Jewish ritual that involved the shedding of a small amount of blood. It is important to emphasise how Our Lady and Saint Joseph, although aware of the divine nature of the Son, wanted to respect the laws of Israel, just as they had respected the laws of Rome in facing the many hardships of travelling to Bethlehem for the census. They knew that Jesus was the Messiah who had come to refashion the laws of the world, being superior to every law and every authority, as Son of God and God himself. But they also knew that God must be respected in the laws and authorities that represent Him, even when these authorities are destined to betray their mission, as the Jews and Romans were to do by condemning Jesus to death.

Circumcision was a rite of purification, and Jesus, the God-man, did not need to be purified of anything, but out of supreme humility he wanted to conceal His divinity from men, as He had done by being born in a manger. In the rite of circumcision, Jesus for the first time shed His blood, as a prefiguration of that which He would so abundantly shed on Calvary.

And it was on the day of circumcision that the divine Infant received the name of Jesus, “which was called by the angel, before he was conceived in the womb”. This name was not bestowed on Him by His holy parents, but by God Himself. Only God the Father, in fact, knew the purpose for which the Son had become incarnate and so wanted Him to be called Jesus, which means “Saviour”, because He came into the world to save us, and this was His mission. The name Jesus comes from the Aramaic name Yeshua and means “salvation”.

“Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved,” we read in the Acts of the Apostles (4:12).

Hence at the Annunciation the Archangel Gabriel said to Mary:

Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.” (Luke 1:30–33)

From then on, Our Lady meditated every day and every hour on these words. She was the first to understand the profound meaning of the word Jesus, which enclosed within itself the mystery of the Incarnation.

The name of Jesus was then also revealed to Saint Joseph, with these words of the angel:

Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:20–21)

The Most Holy Name of Jesus was always honoured and venerated in the Church from the earliest times. In the fourteenth century, it began to be the object of liturgical devotion. The great preacher and propagator of this devotion was Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444) of the Order of Friars Minor, who established and spread the custom of representing the Holy Name of Jesus by its first three letters: IHS, from the Greek ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (Iesûs), inside a sun with twelve rays on a blue field.

The trigram of Saint Bernardino had great success, spreading throughout all of Europe. In 1530, Pope Clement VII authorised the Franciscan Order to recite the Office of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. The Society of Jesus then took as its emblem the three letters of the Name of Jesus as designed by Saint Bernardino of Siena, and dedicated its most beautiful and largest churches all over the world to the Most Holy Name of Jesus, starting with the Church of the Gesù in Rome, the greatest and most beautiful. In 1721, Pope Innocent XIII extended the celebration of the feast of the Name of Jesus to the whole Church. At the beginning of the twentieth century the celebration was established for early January, and in 1962 it was fixed for 2 January, but after the Second Vatican Council it disappeared from the calendar. John Paul II restored 3 January as the optional memorial of the Name of Jesus on the Roman liturgical calendar.

The Name of Jesus is so great and mysterious that no one can understand it, Saint Paul affirms that, except by virtue of the Holy Spirit, Nemo potest dicere, Dominus Jesus, nisi in Spiritu Sancto (1 Cor 12:3). This name, in fact, says Father de La Puente, is a compendium of all the perfections that befit Jesus as God and of all the graces and virtues that are found in Him as man (Meditazioni, Giacinto Marietti, Turin 1835, vol II, p. 180). Saint Bernardino explained that while the Cross evokes the Passion of Christ, His Name recalls every aspect of His life: the poverty of the Nativity scene, the modest carpenter’s workshop, the penance in the desert, the miracles of divine charity, the suffering on Calvary, the triumph of the Resurrection and of the Ascension; in a word, all of Jesus.

It is enough to pronounce the name of Jesus to say everything, without the need to add anything else, because at the name of Jesus all the inhabitants of heaven, earth, purgatory, and even those of hell bend their knees: In nomine Jesu omne genu flectatur, caelestium, terrestrium et infernorum (Phil 2:10).

The Name of Jesus is a formidable weapon against the terrible enemies of man: the devil, the flesh and the world. By repeating this name with love, as often as possible, we will receive extraordinary spiritual benefit. But only the Holy Spirit can usher us deeply into the mystery of a name which, like that of Mary, contains all the greatness and beauties of Heaven and earth. There is no better time than the first days of the year to ask with trust and insistence for this great grace from the Holy Spirit.