The power of naming needs no rehearsal.
As we celebrate the naming of Jesus, we encounter again the implications of a God who enters into the realities of human life. The day remembers that this Jewish child, like every other, would have his entrance into the world and into a family ritually marked. To name a child is to take part in one of the near-universal human experiences: with his or her naming a baby is recognised as an individual, a unique person with both present existence and potential future. A different kind of relationship is established from that with an unborn or even newly-born child: now we can identify the child as him or her self, not purely as the son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, of someone else, and using the name we can address him or her directly. Not surprising, then, that among those disconnected from religious practice, naming ceremonies are gaining popularity.
Not surprising, either, that charity appeals, of which there are (rightly) so many at this time of year, recognise that we struggle to connect to the generic, to ‘babies’, ‘children’, ‘the homeless’. Each one, whether for London’s rough sleepers, the young victims of abuse in the country at large, those who suffer in war, or the hungry of the world’s struggling nations, seems to begin with a name: ‘let me tell you about …’ says the well-known voice fronting the appeal. And a particular, poignant, story unfolds. We seem to need that particularity to engage our sympathies; in the Christian tradition, believing ourselves known by name, we have all the more reason to connect in this way to the man, woman, or child in need, believing them also to be known to God.
Known to God. The phrase will have a distinctive resonance in this year, 2014, as governments and people mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. ‘Known unto God’ are the words inscribed, at the suggestion of Rudyard Kipling, on the graves of the thousands of soldiers who remained unidentified on the battlefields. These were men whose names, given at the beginning of their lives, were lost at the end in the bloody business of war.
The words used on those graves speak of a trust in God’s care for each one as precious. They remain a challenge to our tribalism and localism, a challenge to hold together our own instinctive connection to the known and named individual with a wider sympathy, a wider compassion. If we are given the name of a hungry child, we need to make the link to current concerns over food security for the world – and then think through how we feed ourselves and those dear, familiar, named ones who share our tables. Just as, in the birth and naming of a child 2000 years ago, we see both the particular and the universal, so in our words, our prayers, our actions we are called to respond both to the one whose name we know and the multitude beyond, known and loved by God.
Canon Jane Freeman is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford