Think of all the names you will write this season on Christmas cards, gift tags, shopping lists, and party invitations. Most of us have multiple names over the length of our lifetimes: Nicknames from friends and family. New names taken in marriage or religious life. Versions of our given name that we prefer.
But how often do you pray with the many names of the one who gives this season its name?
Savior. Redeemer. Messiah. Prince of Peace. King of Kings. Lord of Lords. We can forget that these titles are short prayers in and of themselves, each a window through which we catch a glimpse of God. But meditating on the mysteries of Christ’s names can deepen our prayer throughout the Christmas season, from the nativity to the baptism of the Lord.
Christ’s names spread a great feast before us: a long table prepared in love with a seat for each of us. Whether we call Jesus “Brother,” “Savior,” or “Lord,” he waits to welcome us by name.
One of my favorite names for Jesus is Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us.” This word holds together the weight of wonder with the promise of the longed-for Savior whom the prophets foretold. Once I fell in love with this name, I started to glimpse more of God-with-us today.
Every year, my family prays with the names of Jesus throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. Our younger children make a paper chain with one title and scripture verse for each day, which we unroll and pray with every night at dinner.
Years of pondering Christ’s names has deepened my awe for our God who chose to be known by many titles in scripture and church tradition. Here are six names of Jesus to hold in prayer this Christmas. These three pairs can deepen your meditation on the mystery of the incarnation that we celebrate at Christ’s birth.
Son of Mary and Son of the Most High
Jesus is fully God and fully human. This is the truth we celebrate in the incarnation, a core mystery of our faith.
The gospel infancy narratives hold together the holy tension of Jesus as both human and divine. This child born in Bethlehem to a poor young woman is also the Son of God.
Notice which name in this pair beckons to you right now. Carry it close this Christmas to explore and expand your understanding of who God is as you pray to the Christ child.
How to pray with these names: when you read scripture and when you sing.
“What Child Is This?” and “Sing of Mary, Pure and Lowly” are two hymns that celebrate Jesus’ humanity and his intimacy with his mother. “Son of the Most High” is a title repeated in the New Testament to affirm Christ’s sonship with the Most High God (a name found throughout the psalms).
Each time you read, sing, or pray with one of these names during Christmas, consider the other too—and let the power of the paradox deepen your worship and thanksgiving.
The Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd
If we think about sheep and shepherds at Christmas, we tend to picture them as bit players in the nativity scene, standing on the sidelines or running off to tell the Good News.
But when Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd”—and when others affirm him as the “Lamb of God”—he embraces the humility of sheep and shepherds as a way to express God’s deep love for humans.
As you sing of shepherds or place the figures within your nativity scene, let yourself ponder this mystery: that God could become both shepherd and sheep out of love for us.
How to pray with these names: before the Blessed Sacrament and before the crèche.
Both are present in our churches at this time of year: the glory of the tabernacle and the humble stable of the nativity. Pausing to pray at each holy place after Christmas Mass offers us the chance to give thanks for the Lamb of God we receive and the Good Shepherd who receives us.
The Resurrection and the Life
From its opening line, the Gospel of John proclaims the name of Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word” (1:1).
Jesus uses seven famous “I am” statements in this gospel to teach his disciples: I am the Bread of Life (6:35); the Light of the World (8:12); the Gate (10:7–9); the Resurrection and the Life (11:25); the Good Shepherd (10:11–14); the True Vine (15:1–5); and the Way, and the Truth, and the Life (14:6).
He makes himself known in metaphors, drawn from ordinary life but filled with divine love as he makes all things—and all names—new.
As we honor the Christ child in a special way at Christmas, we cannot forget that the incarnation leads to the passion and the resurrection. The cradle becomes the cross. Easter is foreshadowed at Christmas, and Christmas is echoed at Easter.
Praying with these two names of Jesus from the Gospel of John invites us to stretch our prayer from earthly birth to eternal life.
How to pray with these names: when you linger with Christmas and look ahead to Easter.
Celebrating Christmas as a full season is a delightful countercultural practice. When the rest of the world is taking down decorations, the church is just getting started.
As this liturgical season bridges two calendar years, let yourself linger with Christmas as you prepare for what comes next. Soon we will enter into Ordinary Time again, with Lent and Easter edging close on the horizon. What connections can you find between these two great feasts of our faith?
God knows all our names. God also knows us in the silence beyond all telling, calling us beloved beyond any earthly name. Christmas offers an invitation to enter into the sacred silence of communion with God where every word fades away in awe of what Christ did by becoming human to save us.
What’s more, all of God’s names hold together. The child carried by Mary becomes the Good Shepherd who carries us. The True Vine becomes the Bread of Life. The Babe we behold becomes the One who beholds us in turn.
The vibrant tapestry of Christ’s names reminds us how Christmas is woven with the whole liturgical year, a seamless garment of celebration. God is present here and now, in every season, known in every generation by a hundred holy names.
For more ways to pray with the names of Jesus, read Emmanuel: A Christmas Feast by Laura Kelly Fanucci. This Christmas collection of prayers, reflections, hymns, and artwork for each day of the liturgical season is available from Blessed Is She.
This article also appears in the December 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 12, pages 18-19). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Ewa Szlempo