At first glance, it may seem odd that while Jesus sometimes calls himself the Son of Man, he never referred to himself as the Christ, the Messiah. And when Peter recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus ordered the disciples not to tell anyone.
Jesus' hesitation to be known as the Messiah stems from the Jewish belief that the Messiah would be a great worldly ruler, a glorious king. The title Son of Man, however, has Scriptural links with the Suffering Servant described by the prophet Isaiah. Jesus' mission was to suffer, not to run the government.
In this light, it makes sense that Jesus would tell the disciples not to spread the word that he is the Messiah. It would create false expectations. Indeed, Peter himself had such expectations. Suffering and death "must never happen to you," he told the Lord (Matthew 16:22).
Perhaps it seems unusual that the writers of the Catechism of the Catholic Church would devote a section to the names and titles by which Jesus was known in Scripture — Jesus, Christ, the only Son of God, the Lord. But each of those names helps us to understand the divine nature of Jesus Christ. The first act of a Christian is to know and love Jesus. So, by coming to a greater awareness of the names by which he was known, we can draw closer to him.
The name Jesus means "God saves." Even in his given name, there is a sign of Jesus' mission. Just as God led his people out of Egypt, so Jesus will save us from sin.
The word "Christ" (Messiah) means the anointed one. Although Jesus was reluctant to be known publicly as the Christ, he was aware of his identity as Messiah. His role as the Christ is to establish God's kingdom on earth. But this is a different sort of kingdom. "The true meaning of his kingship is revealed only when he is raised high on the cross" (Catechism, no. 440).
At both Jesus' baptism and his transfiguration, the voice of the Father designates Jesus as his "beloved Son." All of us are called to live as adopted children of God. But Jesus' sonship is even more intimate — he is the only begotten Son of the Father.
Jesus is also known as the Lord, the same name which the Hebrews used to refer to Yahweh. The term "'Lord' expresses the recognition of the divine mystery of Jesus" (Catechism, no. 448). It also implies that we should not submit our personal freedom to anyone or anything but Jesus.
By reflecting on these different names or titles given to Jesus we can understand better who he is. Jesus is given other titles in the New Testament which are not dealt with so thoroughly by the catechism — titles such as the Good Shepherd, the new Adam and the Bread of Life. These can also help us understand Jesus.
But the church has traditionally seen the name of Jesus as imparting more than understanding. It sees power in the name itself.
After Pentecost, Peter healed a crippled man when he said, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk" (Acts 3:6).
In later centuries, beginning with the early church fathers, devotion to the holy name developed and miracles were attributed to the prayerful invocation of Jesus' name.
This devotion reached a peak with St. Bernadine of Siena in the 15th century. Bernadine gave sermons aiming to spur a strong love for and devotion to the name of Jesus. At the end of his sermons, the saint held high a tablet bearing the Lord's name in letters of gold. Some saw this practice as idolatrous, but it eventually received wholehearted approval from the pope of the day.
In our day, such practices and devotions might seem hokey. However, they should challenge us to examine the ways in which speech and images are used in our culture. All too often, we see the spoken word as something ephemeral, as lacking in staying power. We fail to see how one's style of speech reflects what is in the person's heart and how words can alter and define the character of those who use them and those who receive them. Words should not be used carelessly.
Our speech, our reading and writing, and the TV programs and movies we choose to watch can be a way to raise up or lower our own dignity. Understood in that light, the reverent use of the holy name of Jesus can be an important way for us to participate in building up God's kingdom.
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