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Taylor Halverson: Christmas without Jesus

Christmas is about Jesus.

But not always. More now than ever before, it seems, Christmas is not about Jesus.

Our society is celebrating Christmas without Jesus.

Recently, I attended a Christmas celebration and I was amazed that during the entire performance there was not one mention of the name Jesus. The word Christmas was used several times. But the name of Jesus, the reason for the season, was unquestioningly absent. And when I say unquestioningly, I mean that I didn’t hear anyone question his absence from the celebration.

We are not avoiding the name of Jesus at Christmas for reverential reasons.

There have been times in the past that the personal name of God was not spoken in order to treat his name with more dignity and respect, as we see explained in Doctrine and Covenants 107:4. In the Old Testament, the name of God has been combined with his title “Lord” to reverence him. When you see “LORD” in all capitals in the Old Testament, the underlying Hebrew root word is YHWH, the name of God.

Many scholars think that this name would be pronounced as Yahweh. But we are not entirely certain because the pronunciation of the name YHWH is not given in the Bible. Why? In order to show respect for the name of God and avoid the too frequent use of his name, ancient biblical scribes removed, or never included, the original vowels to the name YHWH and added instead the vowels from the Hebrew word “adonai” (which means “Lord” in English).

This scribal mannerism was meant to alert readers that when they saw the name YHWH in the text, they were to say “adonai” instead of Yahweh. This would allow those who loved and honored God to refer to him with respect instead of blasphemy. Incidentally, the word Jehovah was invented by the King James translators by combining the Hebrew letters YHWH (or JHVH) with the vowels from “adonai.” Thus you get “Jahova” or “Jehovah.”

Even the Jewish Dead Sea Scroll community, who were reading and copying biblical texts around the time of Jesus, sought to reverence the name of God by omitting his name from some of their text. In place of the four letters of God’s name, YHWH, the scribes would insert four dots.

Later, Greek-speaking Christians called the name of God the “tetragrammaton,” which literally means “four letters.” This provided a sesquipedalian and fancy way to talk about and honor the name of God without ever saying his name.

But these years of speaking reverentially of Jesus have long slipped from memory.

Why does our society avoid the name Jesus during Christmas? Likely because society sees the name of Jesus as inconvenient, unpopular, or seemingly intolerant or divisive. And yet, the same society that takes offense at hearing the name of Jesus during the season we celebrate his birth is the same society that rushes to include the foul misuse of the name Jesus in most popular media.

The name Jesus is not spoken in popular media to remember him for his loving kindnesses and acts of salvific grace. Rather, popular media uses the name of Jesus when anger, curses and foulness are topics. This is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s warning, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).

The name Jesus means “salvation” in Hebrew. What better name could the author of salvation have? Why would we not want to declare his name at all times, especially at the special season commemorating his birth? Why would we avoid talking of salvation? What do we gain by avoiding Jesus?

Perhaps during this Christmas season, we can celebrate and remember Jesus by naming him just as the angel of the Lord commanded Joseph of Nazareth to do.

“The angel of the Lord appeared unto (Joseph) in a dream, saying … (Mary) shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins …. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him … and he called his name JESUS” (Matthew 1:20-21, 24-25).

Jesus is so named because he is salvation. And that knowledge is the joy of the season.

Taylor Halverson (Ph.D., biblical studies, instructional tech) is a BYU teaching and learning consultant; founder of Creativity, Innovation & Design Group; and travel leader to Mesoamerica and Middle East. His views are his own.