On January 3, we observe the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, a devotion especially dear to Franciscans.
Luke’s Gospel tells us: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (2:21). The name Jesus means “the Lord saves,” and it encapsulates Jesus’s very identity: the manifestation of God’s saving love in the world.
Devotion to the name of Jesus has taken many forms in the history of Christianity, but it was the Franciscan Bernardine of Siena who in the 15th century especially popularized devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, carrying about a large monogram of the Holy Name (see main image) on his preaching tours.
For more background, see a beautiful presentation on the various treatments of the name of Jesus in the history of Christian art by Margaret Duffy.
For Bernardine, recalling the name of Jesus actualized the living, reconciling presence of Christ among believers: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13). Permission to celebrate a specific liturgical feast in honor of the Holy Name of Jesus was first granted to the Franciscan Order in 1530; it gradually spread to other communities and was finally extended to the universal Church in 1721.
Meditative repetition of the name of Jesus has served for centuries as a way for Christians to focus on the saving presence of Christ in our life. Eastern Christians fostered the use of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the Western Church, Franciscans Bernardine of Siena and John of Capistrano developed the Litany of the Holy Name.
Main image: Andrea Mantegna depicted the monogram of the Holy Name of Jesus supported by Saints Anthony of Padua on the left and Bernardine of Siena on the right. This lunette was created for the entrance porch of the Basilica of San Antonio in Padua, Italy, in 1452, only two years after Bernardine’s canonization.
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.