Q: I attend Mass during the week, and I was surprised when on Jan. 3 the priest announced that it was the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The parish where I grew up had a Holy Name Society. What is the origin of this feast day?
Reverence for the Holy Name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, arose in the apostolic times. St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians wrote, “So that at Jesus’ name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10-11). Just as a name gives identity to a person and also reflects a person’s life, the name of Jesus reminds the hearer of who Jesus is and what He has done for us. Keep in mind that the name “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.”
In invoking Our Lord’s name with reverential faith, one is turning to Him and imploring His divine assistance. An old spiritual manual cited four special rewards of invoking the Holy Name: First, the name of Jesus brings help in bodily needs. Jesus Himself promised at the Ascension, “In my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them, they will lay their hands on the sick and they will recover” (Mk 16:17-19). After Pentecost, St. Peter and St. John went to the Temple to preach and encountered a cripple begging; St. Peter commanded, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have I give you! In the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazorean, walk!” and the crippled began to walk (Acts 3:1-10). Invoking Jesus’ name, St. Peter also cured Aeneas (Acts 9:32ff).
Second, the name of Jesus gives help in spiritual trials. Jesus forgave sins, and through the invocation of His Holy Name, sins continue to be forgiven. At Pentecost, St. Peter echoed the prophecy of Joel, “Then shall everyone be saved who calls on the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:21), a teaching echoed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans (10:13). As St. Stephen, the first martyr, was being stoned, he called upon the name of the Lord and prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). St. Thomas More, the patron saint of our diocese, as he awaited execution wrote to his daughter Margaret, “I will not mistrust Him, Meg, though I shall feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear. I shall remember how Saint Peter at a blast of wind began to sink because of his lack of faith, and I shall do as he did: call upon Christ and pray to Him for help. And then I trust He shall place His holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning.”
Third, the name of Jesus protects the person against Satan and his temptations. Jesus on His own authority exorcized demons (e.g. the expulsion of the demons of Gadara (Mt 8:28-34)). Through the invocation of His Holy Name, Satan is still conquered.
Finally, we receive every grace and blessing through the Holy Name of Jesus. Jesus said, “I give you my assurance, whatever you ask the Father, He will give you in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:23-24 ). In summary, St. Paul said, “Whatever you do, in whether in speech or in action, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3:17).
Both St. Bernardine of Sienna (1380-1444) and his student St. John of Capistrano (1386-1456) promoted devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. In their preaching missions throughout Italy, they carried a monogram of the Holy Name surrounded by rays. In its origin, the monogram IHS is an abbreviation of the name Jesus in Greek: I and H representing an Iota and Eta respectively, the first two letters of the name; to which later was added S, a Sigma, the final letter. (A later tradition holds that IHS represents the Latin Iesus Hominum Salvator, meaning “Jesus Savior of Mankind.”) St. Bernardine and St. John blessed the faithful with this monogram, invoking the name of Jesus, and many miracles were reported. They also encouraged people to have the monogram placed over the city gates and the doorways of their homes. Dispelling the objections of some who considered this veneration superstitious, Pope Martin V in 1427 approved the proper veneration to the Holy Name and asked that the cross be included in the monogram IHS. Later in 1455, Pope Callistus III asked St. John to preach a crusade invoking the Holy Name of Jesus against the vicious Turkish Moslems who were ravaging Eastern Europe; victory came in their defeat at the Battle of Belgrade in 1456.
In 1597, Pope Sixtus V granted an indulgence to anyone reverently saying, “Praised be Jesus Christ!” Pope Cement VII in 1530 allowed the Franciscans to celebrate a feast day in honor of the Holy Name, and Pope Innocent XIII extended this to the universal Church in 1721; the feast day was celebrated on the Sunday between Jan. 1 and 6, or otherwise on Jan. 2. (Unfortunately, the feast day was dropped with the revision of the liturgical calendar in 1969 by Pope Paul VI.) Pope Pius IX in 1862 approved a Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, which Pope Leo XIII later endorsed for the whole Church because he was “…desirous of seeing an increase in the devotion toward this glorious name of Jesus among the faithful, especially in a period when this august name is shamelessly scoffed at.”
Pope John Paul II has reinstituted the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus to be celebrated on Jan. 3. Moreover, the reverential invocation of the Holy Name of Jesus as part of prayer or work, and the recitation of the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus still convey a partial indulgence for the reparation of sin. Also, the Holy Name Society, first organized in 1274 and granted the status of a confraternity in 1564, continues to promote at the parish and diocesan levels an increased reverence for the name of Jesus, reparation for the sins of profanity and blasphemy against the Holy Name, and the personal sanctification of its members.
Editor’s note: this article first appeared in the Arlington Catholic Herald and is reprinted here with kind permission.