The Holy Name of Jesus


In 1913, a small Russian fleet landed a contingent of soldiers who forcibly removed a group of Russian monks from Mount Athos. This action came at the end of a stormy controversy surrounding the name of God. The monks were known as the Imyaslavsy (“Name worshippers”) and were following ideas that had been promulgated in a text published in 1907. That work, On the Caucasus Mountains, written by the staretz, Schemamonk Hilarion, was a very popular work on the Jesus Prayer, and contained the statement, “The Name of God is God Himself.” The arguments surrounding the statement and the work itself reads like a who’s who of early 20th century Russian theological figures. Its greatest opponent was Archbishop Anthony Khrapovitsky as well as the bulk of the Holy Synod. Defenders included figures such as Fr. Sergius Bulgakov and Fr. Pavel Florensky. Interestingly, the topic has been brought up for re-examination in our own time.

All of this might sound like a storm in a tea cup, a battle over semantics, but it centered around the very important place of the Holy Name within Orthodoxy. It is easy to say, without fear of contradiction, that no group within Christianity holds greater reverence for the name of Jesus, in word and in practice than Orthodox Christianity. The most universal devotional prayer in Orthodoxy is the ‘Jesus Prayer’: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And those who teach the prayer always include the instruction that the devotional recitation of the prayer is to focus on the Name.

There are three texts in the New Testament worth noting in this regard:

God has given him a name which is above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (Phil 2:9-10).

There is no other name under heaven given to men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

Hitherto you have not asked anything in my name. …Whatever you ask the Father in my name, He will give it you (Jn 16:23-24).

Christian instinct has always had a sense that when the name of Jesus is invoked, Jesus Himself is invoked. There are countless Pentecostal choruses and Protestant hymns that extol the “sweetness” and the “power” of the name of Jesus. The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name on January 3rd, though others in the West associate it with January 1st (the Feast of the Circumcision in Orthodoxy).

Taken in the wrong way, “The Name of God is God Himself,” is certainly heretical. That would be true were someone to say that an Icon of Christ is Christ Himself. However, the Church says that in an icon, the person (hypostasis) of Christ is truly present. According to St. Basil, “An image makes present that which it represents.” But to say that Christ is hypostatically present is not the same thing as saying that the icon is Christ Himself. The iconc represents – it does not become what (or whom) it represents.

It is at least the case that the Holy Name is a verbal icon of Christ. But it is also the case that it seems to be more than an icon. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we believe that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Orthodox are quite realist in such language. The elements of the Eucharist are treated in the most holy and reverent way possible, though there is not an Orthodox practice of “adoration” as a service in itself, as is practiced within Roman Catholicism. As it was explained to me, “Christ said, ‘Take eat.’ He did not say, ‘Take, look.’” And so we treat it with all possible reverence – and then consume it. The sacrament is reserved for the purpose of ministering to the sick or dying – but not for the purpose of adoration.

These are interesting waters within the theological life. The heart has an understanding that frequently defies our attempts at description. Perhaps the most serious charge (of substance) brought against the Imyaslavsy was that they were “innovators.” In saying, “The name of God is God Himself,” they were declaring something that the Church has not said. My own take on the matter is rather similar. Were I to hear such a declaration, I would immediately recognize a friend rather than an enemy. But something within me would hesitate and say, “Yes. But I don’t think that is quite the right way to say it.”

The danger associated with such a statement is that of making the name of God into a fetish, a religious object by which we seek power (or some such thing). The same charge, of course, was long ago brought against the making and veneration of icons and the Church refuted it – as heresy. There is a right veneration given to icons – and that veneration is important and salvific.

In the same manner, calling on the name of Jesus is essential in the Christian life. “There is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”

This short passage from St. Basil the Great offers wisdom in the matter:

But if someone claims that it is written: “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Jl 2:32 & Acts 2:21), and that therefore a Christian need only invoke the name of God to be saved, let him read what the Apostle has said: “How can they call upon him if they do not believe in him” (Rom 10:14). And besides this there are the words of the Lord himself: “Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat 7:21). Moreover, if someone is doing the will of the Lord and does not do it exactly in the way ordained or does not do it out of the proper motive of love for God, then all the effort he puts into the action is useless, and Jesus Christ himself has said in his gospel: “Hypocrites do these things as to be seen by men: I tell you truthfully, they have already received their reward” (Mt 6:16). It was in this divine school that Saint Paul learned the lesson which he taught when he said: “If I give away all my possessions to feed the poor and give my body to be burned, but lack charity it profits me nothing” (Cor 13:3).

This wisdom seems similar to the right-honoring of icons. The Church defended the making and veneration of icons and described precisely what was meant by veneration (it is not worship). Years ago, I wrote that it is necessary to venerate an icon in order to actually see it. Those who do not honor the one represented in the icon only see an object of art. But the icon exists within the relationship that is established through communion. I honor the icon of Christ, because I love Christ. How do I not love His image? How could I not love His name?

But consider for a moment an error too easily overlooked. The Name of God is not an idea. Honoring the name is more than pondering it my mind. Like an icon, the name itself has substance. It may be spoken, sung, written. We are told to “call upon the name.” We do not honor an abstraction, but recognize and honor a Reality that is itself present in the name. Those who attacked the Imyaslavsy often fall into this error, embracing a Nominalist view of reality instead. The name of God is real.

His name is sweet. It dwells within me and burns with Divine fire. It is a treasure given to me in my Baptism. It causes demons to flee and calms the wind and waves. It heals the sick and brings hope to all. It opens the gates of paradise. But this is true of the Name-in-communion and not as an object-in-separation.

Veneration is the primary means that brings us into true communion. It is love-extended-towards-the-other. It finds a huge variety of forms in the life of devotion – love is very creative in its expression. That God has given us His name is itself a revelation of the Incarnation. “Jesus” is a very human name, nothing other than the name “Joshua.” It was probably a common name. It still is. But it is also The Name when spoken by the heart of love. Above all names it bears the Savior and He deigns even to dwell on our lips.

Glory to God.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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29 responses to “The Holy Name of Jesus”

  1. Art Avatar

    Father Freeman, I have lately been consuming your works, both written and vis podcast as I continue to pursue the Christian path toward orthodoxy and, in my current movement, Orthodoxy.

    As a former Oneness Pentecostal and, most recently, a COGIC member, how does the Name of Jesus differ between Orthodoxy and Oneness Pentecostals who teach that Jesus is the very name of God Himself?

    It is interesting that Oneness believers, who believe this to be the truth of Christianity, and Orthodoxy both place such great and mystical importance to the Name.

  2. Deborah E. Avatar
    Deborah E.

    Fr. Stephen, thank you so much for this illuminating post. Last night while awaiting the stroke of midnight, I had listened to a brief talk on YouTube about the Jesus Prayer. Your post this morning perfectly fills out and clarifies what I had heard last night. Even though I’ve been Orthodox for a long time, I still feel sometimes as if I’m new to the faith.

  3. Dino Avatar

    Elder Aimilianos often repeated that the Jesus prayer was also Holy Communion.
    If there’s something unique in this form of communing – through invoking – (whether outwordly, silently or sublimely internally), it will always have something to do with the possibility for it to occur at all times. Other forms cannot approach the same ease of unceasingness.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, am I wrong to understand that the name of Jesus invokes the person but is not the totality of the person? Is it really possible to know the Person without His name?

    The instructions to Mary are quite specific, yet her testimony immediately after was that her soul magnified the Lord. That to me is redolent with the necessity of communion if I am not wrong.

    My name is a common name. At one time there were two Michael Baumans on this blog. Me and and a Christian historian who teaches at Hillsdale College and writes books on the Christian life. Occasionally I have been mistaken for him on other blogs.

    Yet our shared name does not embody all that we are.

  5. Janine Avatar

    Thank you for this, Father (and for so many more … it is good to be thankful on New Year’s Day!). But my mind goes immediately to another question. God’s name given to Moses from the Burning Bush we “translate” or use as “Lord” and our most-often heard prayer is “Lord have mercy.” Where does this fit in? I am completely willing (and do) believe that, like an icon, where faith is present, so is the Person. But what of “Lord” and “Jesus”?

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not sure how to answer this. I’m not sure what “part of a person” would be.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father perhaps “fullness” is better. The name is not the fullness but rather more like an icon.

    Michael is not the name my parents gave me. I never felt comfortable with the name I was given. It always felt restrictive some how of who I am. I eventually had it legally changed to Michael, but there is a certain segment of me that still rests in my given name. The fullness of me is in Jesus but not fully integrated into my name, Michael. Now, Jesus name is given by God but can the name alone be His fullness? Not to mention being fully God and fully man.

    Even Jesus: Isaiah 9:6 makes that clear, especially when sung in The Messiah. Then there is the whole geneology component. .

    Just watched a fun movie last night: The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain. That was the name of the main character. Indeed in the Welsh village at the heart of the story people have names that denote not only who they are, but what they do and what they experience. Like Johnny Shellshocked.

    I think trying to put all of God into one name may be the essential error of the name devotees. The reverse error is expressed in the old Sci Fi story The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke in which creation will only be fulfilled if every name of God is known at the same time. Artificial Intelligence plays an essential part.

    Rambling here but as a means to examine the very inexactness and lack of fullness of names and futile reductionism of making any name the fullness of the person.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “fullness” works.

  9. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen and Dino,
    I’ve been told that the Roman Catholic Eastern Churches have the same Liturgy, same icons, same creed, same ‘internal hierarchal structure’, but is ‘under the Pope of Rome.

    Personally, I resist the idea that everything is the same, but ‘simply under the Pope’. Some of these Churches have been ‘under Rome’ for a few hundred years haven’t they?

    I wonder then how this length of time in the RC Church would affect the prayer life in praying the Jesus Prayer?

    I look to the sentence in your article referring to communion with the saints in veneration of their icons and to the communion with Christ and parish through receiving the Eucharist. These things make the the Orthodox worship different from the RC Eastern Churches, do they not?

    I know very little about the eastern RC Churches. But recently came across an article in an RC periodical that would suggest that their history makes them contiguous in some manner with the Orthodox in worship, ‘but under Rome’ instead of Orthodox jurisdictions.

    I ask for your thoughts concerning these things as I believe my questions pertain to ‘invoking the name of Jesus’ and of ‘right worship’.

  10. C Avatar

    Dee, from my understanding the Byzantine Catholic Churches — Ukrainian Catholic in the USA since the 1930’s did not have a married clergy, and depending upon the parish, incorporated Roman Catholic theology and laity took on private Roman Catholic–latin style– devotions. From my home town, the local Ukrainian Catholic Church in the 1960’s removed the iconostasis, etc. and after Vactican II was instructed to put back the iconostasis. On the same note I would be interested in why the Antiochian and ROCOR bishops allowed Westernn Rite Orthodox Churches.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I forgot to note the most obvious thing. It is the case that we might be “personally” present in our name, but that doesn’t mean we are “essentially” present in our name – that is – our being or “essence” (for human beings) is only ever at one particular place. It’s really only in that place that we are present in our fullness.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Eastern Catholic Churches have an interesting history, needless to say. Their litugical practices have varied over time. John Paul II wanted them to return to a more faithful practice of following Eastern practice, and that has been going on since then. I have spent time (as a speaker) with varying groups of Eastern Catholics. I think, based on my conversations, that there is among some of them, a great affinity for the Orthodox, something that I certainly encourage. In their origins, they were Orthodox, but represent a schism, of sorts, in which they submitted to the Pope, breaking communion with Orthodoxy itself.

    I personally think that accepting the papacy entails more than just a matter of church politics, but also represents an acceptance of a “consciousness” (“phronema”) that differs from Orthodoxy. That said, they share a great deal in common with us.

    As to the mind or consciousness of Orthodoxy itself, it’s possible for that to become tied up with a sort of “identity” thing that is a bit unpleasant, oftimes. It can miss the point. I have said, publicly, and even as I speaking among the Eastern Catholics, that “there is not an ecumenical bone in my body.” I mean that there can be no sort of union that is not a union in the fullness of the truth of Orthodoxy. That does not require any of us to be less than kind or generous (and I know you are both kind and generous).

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The opinions of the Orthodox towards the concept of Western Rite Orthodoxy is really varied. It’s not the kind of topic I write on.

  14. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Thank you Fr Stephen and C for your responses. Both are very helpful.

  15. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “His name is sweet. It dwells within me and burns with Divine fire. It is a treasure given to me in my Baptism. It causes demons to flee and calms the wind and waves. It heals the sick and brings hope to all. It opens the gates of paradise. But this is true of the Name-in-communion and not as an object-in-separation.”

    Father Stephen,
    For the very reason of such adoration, devotion, you so well describe here, and in addition, that our identity is so closely tied with our name, there is something within me that shrinks back from the name ‘Jesus’ as a person’s first name. I realize this is not uncommon within the Hispanic culture. Perhaps it is a form of reverence, knowing that they are a very devoted people. I can understand that.
    But here’s my thoughts.
    Many people have biblical names. In the past it was quite common to be given names of persons from the Old or NT. For the Orthodox, when we are received into the Church, we decide upon our ‘new name’, after our patron Saint. Which is to imply that to pick the name ‘Jesus’ would be out of the question. Because it is “a name which is above all names”.
    Maybe I make too much of this. I am not saying that this should not be done. I would actually like to not ‘shrink back’, but rather to have a better understanding. But it is because, in my mind, there is only One Person, in time and eternity, who is called the Lord Jesus (I think this may touch on Janine’s question), I am not able to ‘not hear’ the Lord Jesus in a person with Jesus as their name.
    I think that just as words ‘mean something’, so do names.
    Can you help me here, Father?

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I suppose there are very different cultural sensitivities. In Russia, for example, someone named “Mary” is not normally named for the Theotokos. My oldest daughter, Mary, when she lived in Siberia, scandalized folks in her Church when she explained that August 15 was her named (for the Theotokos). They said, “But that’s impossible!” The priest said, “I’ve heard of this. The Greeks do it.”

    Interesting. Apparently, “Jesus” is an acceptable name for a boy in Latin cultures. We Anglo’s think nothing of naming someone “Joshua,” even though it is the very same name.

  17. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father. Yes, it is true that there are cultural sensitivities and that bears much consideration.
    Guess my thoughts were not so different than the folks in Siberia! As usual, the priest smoothed it out! 🙂

  18. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Pardon this one final thought, Father, after ‘sleeping’ on your much appreciated response. I don’t mean to be picking at gnats!
    Yes, it is interesting that we think nothing of naming a person Joshua. And yes, Joshua is the very same name as Jesus. But in the West we identify Christ with the name Jesus, not Joshua. It is our cultural sensitivity (or at least very much mine), despite the fact that they are both the very same name.
    It is indeed interesting how the mind works. Is this an example of Barfield’s “collective representation”? The need to identify for the sake of clarity, for the sake of order (we need to make sense of things!)? But we must be mindful that it could be at a cost (rigidity, unalterable ‘separation’, literalness) if we forget to consider cultural sensitivities. Culturally speaking, in regard to language, the name Jesus is spoken differently. But in each it still refers to the same Lord.
    Which brings us back to the theme of this post. The “really real”, is it the name or is the name a representation of the Real (“in” the name)? If so, like the icon, the name/icon is not the actual person, but as you say, it is the presence of the person behind it. For us Jesus means The Christ. Which is the very reason I could not name anybody Jesus. Yes, it is an extreme sensitivity.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would share your sensitivities.

  20. Dee St Hermans Avatar
    Dee St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    The veneration of the Name of Jesus Christ is an interesting question and is related to the theology that St Gregory Palamas helped to elaborate, isn’t it? I’m attempting to put into words something that I experience but writing about it seems to be difficult. The focus I have is on the word “is” which we use in English to denote being. And you have written a lot about the Orthodox ontological understanding of Person and hypostasis, in the context of venerating icons. But at the moment I’m attempting to use St Gregory Palamas’ understanding and differentiation of God’s Essence and Energy. Does this understanding play a part in the topic of this article, invoking the Holy Name of Jesus? Or is this a mistaken consideration?

    Also, I’m wondering whether this Orthodox understanding, experience and theology concerning the Essence and Energy of God might point to additional underlying differences involving the RC practice of “Adoration of the Eucharist” that distinguishes the RC practice from the Orthodox? My understanding is that RC do not have this theology, or it isn’t mainstream in Western Catholicism. Is this correct? If so, as a result, might this lead to a difference in how they receive, perceive and have communion with the Eucharist?

    I hope that this question is helpful to the theme of this article. Since the question about the ‘Adoration of the Eucharist’ had been brought up, I was wondering whether this particular Orthodox theology was relevant to that question.

  21. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I haven’t followed all comments. Perhaps this has been mentioned. I was raised in church. Yet, at 18, when I joined the Air Force, I lived like a pagan. I had a dirty mouth, would say anything. Yet one thing I could never do was besmirch the name of Christ. I am so thankful that He kept me from that sin even though I was far from living for Him.
    It is interesting that the name of Jesus attracts the name of both saint and sinner. One as a precious name of praise; the other as an epithet of cursing.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My own thoughts move in that direction as well.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A note to Harold,
    I apologize, but I’ve deleted our conversation. It required me to comment on a personality and I’d prefer not to do that. I will simply say that I do not recommend reading his work. It is not reliable. Forgive me.

  24. Harold C. Seger Avatar
    Harold C. Seger

    Thank you Fr. Freeman.
    I have thrown out the 250 pages I printed and deleted his blog site.
    Will concentrate on the Russian Catechism translating .

    Peace comes from above.
    And settles in the heart.
    To rule over the intellect.

  25. Harold C. Seger Avatar
    Harold C. Seger

    To Dee and Fr. Freeman,
    Here is a quick place for information on Eucharistic Adoration and its beginnings with St Basil,.

    Early history
    While the keeping of the Blessed Sacrament outside Mass seems to have been part of the Christian practice from the beginning to administer to the sick and dying (both Justin Martyr and Tertullian refer to it), the practice of adoration began somewhat later.[16]

    One of the first possible references to reserving the Blessed Sacrament for adoration is found in a life of St. Basil (died AD 379). Basil is said to have divided the Eucharistic bread into three parts when he celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the monastery. One part he consumed, the second part he gave to the monks, and the third he placed in a golden dove-shaped container suspended over the altar.[17] This separate portion was probably to reserve the sacrament for distribution to the sick who were unable to attend the liturgy.[18]

    In Eastern Christianity, the adoration which developed in the West has never been part of the Eastern liturgy which St. Basil celebrated, but a liturgy for adoration does exist among the Eastern Catholic Churches involving psalms and placing a covered diskos with the sacred species on the altar. This is befitting the Eastern custom of veiling from human eyes those things deemed sacred.[19]


  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have not meant to suggest that there is anything “wrong” in the adoration of the Eucharist. The attitude within Orthodoxy towards the Body and Blood of Christ could not be more reverent, nor more “real.” I simply meant to note that it is a devotional practice that is somehow “foreign” to the Orthodox experience. When I first became Orthodox, it was something I pondered. I didn’t have an immediate answer. Over time, it has come to make a certain inner sense to me, though one not easily explainable.

    I know next to nothing about the Western Rite in Orthodoxy and wonder if they practice Eucharistic Adoration. I tend not to like mixing things, primarily under the heading of allowing myself to be formed and shaped by something other than my own likes and preferences. So, I simply give myself to Orthodox practice – and “stew” in it. 🙂

    There is nothing in the description of St. Basil’s practice that differs from present-day Orthodox practice. Generally, the consecrated elements are kept on the altar in the tabernacle.

  27. Odysseus Blackwell Avatar
    Odysseus Blackwell

    Humbling that the Word submitted to being “named” on the 8th day.

  28. Janine Avatar

    It always stuns me that we are meant to eat the Eucharist, Take and Eat. Not because of anything else except that our communion is meant to be so deep that it becomes a part of us. (And that’s even beside the fact that it feeds us.) But that level of closeness still makes adoration a bit removed from participation and communion somehow. The only time I can think of a sort of veneration happening is before the Epiclesis, when the Gifts are brought forth in the Great Entrance and it is customary to make the Sign of the Cross and bow.

  29. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Dee – I was a devout Roman Catholic for many years. I then became a devout Byzantine (Eastern Rite) Catholic. Eventually, I found my way home to the Orthodox Church. So your questions about the differences between Roman Catholicism, Eastern Catholicism and Orthodoxy interest me.

    I do not have any easy answers that would fit here. The issues you raise are actually more complex than they seem. For example, there is no single or unified “Eastern Catholic Church.” There are, instead, about two dozen churches that are commonly identified as Eastern or Eastern Rite or Byzantine Catholic Churches and they do not all get along with each other.

    For instance, I was a Ruthenian. My church suffered a horrible crisis when a group split off to become Ukrainian Greek Catholics. (I understand that many of those folks claim that, in reality, we split off from them.) families were split apart and some folks still will not speak to their kin about something that happened decades ago.

    The point is that, in my experience, it is misleading to speak of Eastern Catholics as if they were some uniform group. You mentioned the Papacy. I know Eastern Catholics who consider their union with the Pope to be a purely spiritual matter. They do not consider him to be the ultimate, infallible authority and are even skeptical about such things as the Immaculate Conception of Mary. On the other hand, I know Eastern Catholics who would never question the Pope’s infallibility and accept the Immaculate Conception of Mary as dogma.

    I am sure there are many more well versed in Byzantine theology that may disagree with what I have said here. I am no theologian. All I can share is my experience.

    Sorry I cannot be more helpful.

    God bless. And thank you for the many insightful questions you have raised in this forum during the years I have followed it.

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