St Matthew and the name of Jesus

Gerald O’Collins SJ, professor emeritus of the Gregorian University, Rome, considers the power of the name of Jesus.

In the final chapter of his Gospel, which is devoted to the Resurrection, St Matthew five times calls Jesus by the name he received at birth: ‘Jesus’ (Mt 28.5,9–10,16,18). Other Gospels call the Risen One not only ‘Jesus’ but also by the title ‘Lord’ (Lk 24.34; Jn 20.13,18; 21.7,12,15–18,20–21). In his Easter chapter, Matthew, however, repeatedly uses only the name of ‘Jesus’. Mark lines up with Matthew, speaking only of ‘Jesus’ in his brief chapter on the Resurrection (16.6).

In general, authors of the New Testament clearly give the impression of following Matthew’s loving preference for giving the name of ‘Jesus’ to the Risen Christ; he remains present with us until the end of human history (Mt 28.20). The twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament speak of ‘Jesus’ nearly one thousand times, easily the most frequent way of referring to him.

The prayer of the blind Bartimaeus, ‘Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me’ (Mk 10.47), helped the name of Jesus live on in the prayer of Christians. Eastern Christians took up the words of Bartimaeus to create their immensely popular ‘Jesus Prayer’.

Medieval Europe was blessed by the anonymous, hauntingly beautiful Jesu dulcis memoria (in Edward Caswell’s translation: ‘Jesus, the very thought of Thee/ With sweetness fills my breast./ Yet sweeter far Thy face to see/ And in Thy presence rest’). St Bernardine of Siena spread devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus by promoting the abbreviation or monogram IHS, taken from the first three letters of the name ‘JESUS’. This monogram, which went back to the second century, was already widely used in Christian art.

Inspired by Bernardine, many Christians had the name of Jesus inscribed above the doorways of their houses.

We should remember how St Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556) showed a profound devotion to the name of Jesus. In the account of the mystery of Christ’s life for 1 January that he included in the Spiritual Exercises, he picked out the naming of Jesus: ‘His name was called Jesus, whereby he was called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb’. Ignatius never ceased treasuring the name that the Christ Child was given.

In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius recommended a few books to read. Among them was the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (d. 1471). One of its sayings sums up its prayerful message: ‘to be with Jesus is a sweet paradise’.

Ignatius revealed a passionate love for the name of Jesus. Enchanted by that name, he called the group who joined him in founding a new religious order ‘the Society of Jesus’.

After his death, Ignatius came to be buried in Rome, not in a church that bears his name, San Ignazio, but in a church named after Jesus: the Chiesa del Gesù.
In that church, you can see repeatedly on the walls and the ceiling the monogram for the name of Jesus, IHS. Those who stop and lift their head to count the occurrences will find IHS over 130 times on the ceiling and walls. The monogram evokes the love for the holy name by which Ignatius lived and with which, directly or indirectly, he infected countless others.

Among his great contemporaries was St Teresa of Avila, an outstanding mystic and spiritual writer, who continues to inspire and guide prayer for innumerable Christians. She called herself ‘Teresa of Jesus’. An intense love for Jesus and his name pervades her writings. She took time out to write a commentary on the ‘Our Father’, the special prayer Jesus taught us.

Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, far from remaining a Catholic monopoly, has flourished among evangelicals and others. A slave trader who became an effective abolitionist and preacher, John Newton (1725–1807), composed a most popular hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’. But we should not forget another wonderful work by him, ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds’.

It opened with the verse: ‘How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds/in a believer’s ear. /It soothes his sorrow, heals his wounds, /And drives away his fear.’ It was not that Newton cherished the name of Jesus at the expense of other names or titles. But that names flared with intensity as the first word in verse five: ‘Jesus, my Saviour, Shepherd, Friend/ my Prophet, Priest and King/ my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End/ accept the praise we bring’. Every name Newton specified here enjoys its biblical credentials. But ‘Jesus’ led the way; it was the name through whom he had been given grace, amazing grace. That name had healed and changed him for ever; he knew how it could heal the consciousness of countless others.

There are innumerable wounds in the Christian churches of today – not least the tragedy of harshly judgmental Church politics. Courteous conversation and willingness to listen have often broken down. They have been replaced by hard words and even hatred.

Nothing could treat this wound in Church life better than the power of the name of Jesus. Matthew and other authors of the New Testament rallied around the name of Jesus. Dare we visualise a Christianity healed and renewed by devotion to the Holy Name?

Jesus is Lord; Jesus is King; Jesus is our everything.

Nothing would please Jesus more than our using repeatedly in prayer his holy name – whether in hymns, the Jesus Prayer, or short prayers popularised by evangelical Christians.