There’s a sketch sometimes used in youth ministry that depicts a person in dialogue with God. God removes the sins of the person one by one, hammering a chisel while the person winces as those shortcomings and vices that they’d grown accustomed to are painfully removed. At one point in this sketch, the person cries out the Lord’s name in vain, and when God tells them to stop, they ask why it’s such a big deal, saying that it’s just a name, it’s a saying. God stops and says something to the effect of, “No, it's not just a name, it’s the name above all names.” We know this to be true, as St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians:
“God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11)
And we know of the power in the name of Jesus. Ask an exorcist what makes the demons scream in terror, and the name of Jesus will be at the top of any list. Anyone who has been in a moment of distress, terror, or need can likely think back to calling out the name of Jesus, whether with a great shout or a whisper that only they and the Lord could hear. There is great power in the name of Jesus, and on January third, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. We are invited to reflect upon this Scripture as we ponder the power of the Holy Name of Jesus.
Catholics are used to acts of reverence, whether they know them as such or not. The acts of bowing and genuflecting are second nature for most Catholics and are themselves acts of reverence. Historically, it was customary to genuflect to royalty as a sign of reverence. Catholics genuflect as a sign of reverence to Jesus himself in the Eucharist, the King of Kings who is Lord over all our lives. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states, “A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them,” and therefore we bow to the altar, to reverence Jesus’ act of sacrifice. A lesser-known, yet beautiful practice is the bowing of one’s head “when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated” (GIRM, 275). It was Pope Gregory X who, with St. Paul’s words to the Philippians in mind and recognizing the practical difficulty of genuflecting at the name of Jesus, introduced the practice of bowing one’s head at the name of Jesus “in token that interiorly he bends the knee of his heart” (printed in With God: A Book of Prayers and Reflections by Francis Xavier Lasance). Bowing your head at the name of Jesus, especially during the Mass, is a great way to reverence the name of Jesus; we just have to make sure that the act is not a hollow one and is an act that originates in a heart that is seeking God always.
On top of reflecting with Philippians 2:9-11 and taking on the practice of bowing our heads at the name of Jesus, I’d like to offer one final way we can ponder the name of Jesus and its power in our lives. If you ever find yourself in Rome, you can walk into the Chiesa del Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus, where you’ll be met with beautiful Baroque art and architecture. Possibly the greatest piece of art in this magnificent church is on the ceiling, The Triumph of the Name of Jesus, created by Giovanni Battista Gaulli and finished in 1679. This Baroque masterpiece is a fantastic example of the period, with masterful play on light and dark and the use of shadow. The art flows off onto the gold gilding, giving the impression that the art is exploding out of the space that was supposed to contain it. In the middle of this painting, surrounded by the angels and saints, is what looks to be a eucharistic host with the letters IHS beaming with magnificent light. I could stare at this painting for hours; there’s a massive mirror on the floor of the church right underneath it so that pilgrims and visitors can look at it without hurting their necks, and I’d like to invite you to do the same. You don’t have to go to Rome; you can look up the work online. Spend some time with this beautiful painting, and ask yourself how it helps you to understand the power of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. May this feast be a time to become more intimately acquainted with the name of Jesus, the name of our Lord, Savior, friend, and brother.