The Holy Name of Jesus: What Does it Mean?

Today is an optional feast honoring the Holy Name of Jesus.  It’s history is a little complicated and I’m not really sure how to make sense of it myself.  Different orders of the church, like Dominicans, Jesuits and Franciscans, actually celebrate this feast on different days.  Even Anglicans celebrate it, although they usually celebrate it on the 1st of the year.  It was made an optional memorial by Vatican II, and is really an extension of the story of Christmas — the naming of Jesus is an important event in the story of His birth.

The name, “Jesus” is an English transliteration of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which itself is a short form of the Hebrew name “Jehoshua.”  “Yeho” is actually a shortened word for the name of God in Hebrew.  (Remember that Hebrews could not use the name of God so they had to shorten it.)   There were several important characters in the bible with this name, specifically Joshua the successor of Moses, and Joshua the high priest.  And “shua” actually means a cry for help.  So if you want to be totally literal about Jesus’s real name, it means “A cry for help to God.”  The whole word put together in Hebrew came to mean “God saves” or “God delivers.”


We read in Sacred Scripture how the angel Gabriel revealed that name to Mary: “You shall call His name Jesus.”  But when the angel spoke to Joseph in a dream, the meaning of the name was even more explicit:  “You shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” 

But have we ever stopped to reflect that God the Father himself chose this name for his son?  It is even possible that the Son of God chose this name for himself before he became a man — but this gets into pretty deep Trinitarian waters in which we don’t really want to wade right now.  (Please take it to prayer!) 

When we name something, it should represent what it truly is.  We should remember that one of the primary jobs that Adam was given in the garden was to name everything — and presumably, to name everything rightly.  We can lead astray with our names or we can lead to truth.  Calling “abortion” “pro-choice” doesn’t really get the name right.  Calling an addiction “my private comfort” doesn’t really get the name right.  When the military kill innocent civilians in a battle, they will sometimes refer to it as “collateral damage.”  Are human beings ever “collateral”?  I think not. 


Since God the Father himself named Jesus “A cry for help,” or “the one who saves,” we can be certain that he got it right.  But is this how we relate to Jesus?  Has he saved us?  What sins am I withholding from him that he desperately wants to deliver me from?  What am I keeping to myself that needs to be given over to him?

John the Baptist himself — the great prophet and cousin of Jesus himself — actually said, “I for one did not know him.”  As a matter of fact, in our gospel today he says it twice in order to emphasize the point (  Is this a cry of our heart as well?  Honestly, sometimes, it has been for me.  Getting to know the Lord can be a struggle.  And it is comforting to me that maybe some of my sufferings and crosses are necessary if it means that those are the only means through which I might know the Holy name of Jesus as “a cry for help.”  How else will I get to know the son of God unless I need help?  He did not come to save the righteous, but sinners.  He did not come to the healthy, but as a doctor for the sick.  With this in mind, the following passages give me immense comfort:

“The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, those who are crushed in spirit he will save.”  (Psalm 34:18)

” This is the one whom I approve: the lowly and afflicted man who trembles at my word.”  (Isaiah 66:2)

And, I suppose, thank God for that.  O Holy Name of Jesus, save me!


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