When Our Lord Jesus was eight days old, two things happened in succession. As he was circumcised, Our Lord was given the name Jesus (Luke 2.21).
His circumcision fulfilled a command by God in the Old Testament. That command was a visible sign of the covenant between God and His chosen people. It was also an indication that our mortality traces to our conception, and that our tendency to sin (known as concupiscence) is as inherited as our skin, hair, or eye color.
The holy fathers, however, see something else in St Luke’s mention that Christ is circumcised. This is the first day when Christ’s blood is shed, and so His circumcision both proves that He is truly human and also reveals that our redemption will occur in Christ’s bloodshed on the cross.
That Jesus is named on the day when He is circumcised is not required in the Old Testament; rather, it is in line with a long-standing tradition among the Jews. And, for Luke, the naming of Jesus is as important as His circumcision. For His name explains His purpose.
“His name was called Jesus” because that was the name the Angel Gabriel gave to both Mary (Luke 1.31) and Joseph (Matthew 1.18) on separate occasions. On the day of Our Lord’s conception, when Mary was told to call his name “Jesus” she was also informed that “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1.32). Joseph heard the Angel’s command when he was dreaming, and was told that the name “Jesus” means, “He shall save.”
Most people give their children a particular name for a reason: to honor a relative or loved one or hero; to connect the child to a patron saints; in the hope that the child will have the qualities that the name describes or elicits; or simply because it sounds nice. However, very often in the Scriptures, names describe a particular human short-coming (like the name, Isaac) or an attribute or blessing from God.
Joseph and Mary obediently follow the Angel’s direction. Like Elizabeth and Zacharias, they don’t name the Holy Child after a relative, but submit their will to the Lord. For they understand that Jesus’ name describes what He will do: He will save His people from their sins.
Because this name is divinely given, and because it proclaims our salvation, the name of Jesus should not be used as an exclamation when something surprising happens. For this is the name by which we are saved, the name above all names, and the name which will cause every knee to bow. (Philippians 2.10) Therefore, this name should always be spoken with holy reverence, and as a prayer.
In fact, it is best to nod the head in prayerful submission whenever we hear or say the holy name of Jesus. By itself, this little action will remind us that Our Lord’s Name and His circumcision fit neatly together. For when Jesus bleeds at His circumcision, He already begins to live up to His name as the Savior who will sacrifice Himself for the sake of all creation.