In Annie Hall, a reporter gushes about some Indian guru that “He’s God!” Woody Allen echoes five thousand years of wry Jewish humor toward the idolatrous enthusiasm of paganism when he replies, “I can’t get with any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics.” Then he says, “Look!” as the Maharishi, a small, chunky man, walks out of the men’s room, huge bodyguards flanking him while policemen hold back the crowds, “There’s God coming outta the men’s room.”
We Catholics call Jesus “Lord” without a second thought. Yet, the strength of the word is still discernible as soon as we put it in a new context. Try calling your boss “Lord” or demanding that the children call Dad “Lord.” Suddenly solemn majestic images of august Solomonic kings or majestic medieval nobles shimmer before our eyes and the incongruity makes us feel silly. And, of course, if “Lord” meant, not merely a medieval social superior, but “God” we’d feel really bizarre.
It is worth noting that, for many of Jesus’ contemporaries, our bizarre feeling at calling our boss “Lord” was exactly how they felt about applying the title to somebody who was, for them, quite literally a popular mechanic. (Jesus was a teknon, or skilled laborer, referring to somebody who built or fixed things. A closer translation than “carpenter” would be “handy man”.) He was also, well, a man—the sort of creature that uses the toilet everyday. This made the claim of the Incarnation incredible enough to many Jews. Pile on top of that the reality that this “guru” had died a shameful death by crucifixion covered in spit, sweat, and blood, condemned by both the Jewish and Roman authorities, and you can begin to see how many Jews remote from the events of the gospel would pay no more attention to the apostles’ claims about Jesus than Allen pays to the reporter burbling over the Maharishi. It’s not a bad thing to be shocked again by the radical nature of the Christian claims about Jesus. Just so long as our shock doesn’t prompt the same unthinking rejection as Allen’s and instead moves us to ask “Why then did so many, even of the Jews, come to credit the apostles’ account of Jesus?” For the reality is that between the first and fifth centuries, about five-sixths of the Jewish population in the Roman Empire became Christian. They came to believe, along with the Gentiles, that Y’shua was Lord.
Y’shua’s name, like everything else about him, was a sign. It was given him by divine decree through an angel, before his birth. It’s a name with a noble pedigree: the same name that the conqueror of the Promised Land had centuries before. Lots of other Jews shared the name and this is fitting too. For God, in becoming incarnate, was thrusting himself into the normal hurly-burly of human life and allowing himself to be swept along in the normal currents of day-to-day business as usual. But in entering that life, he was also changing it forever: pulling it up into his eternal Trinitarian life and making it a participant with him in everlasting glory. That is why “Y’shua” means “The Lord is our Salvation.”
Jesus’ other “name” is not a name at all but a title. “Christ” means “Anointed One.” Jesus was never anointed (so far as we know) with oil by a Levitical priest. However, he was anointed by Mary of Bethany. It was a loving gesture—one so beautiful that Christ promised that it would always be remembered wherever the gospel was preached. But the bittersweet fact is that this gesture of love was a haunting foreshadow of just what Christ was anointed to be: Priest after the order of Melchizedek—and Victim. Our anointing from the Holy Spirit is a call to walk in his steps all the way to the cross—and with the Anointed One to resurrection.
Christ’s most profound anointing takes place at his baptism in the river Jordan, when the Holy Spirit comes upon him. He does not, of course, need John’s baptism. Indeed, he does not need the visible sign of the dove given to John the Baptist. But we do. That’s because we are sons and daughters by adoption, but he is the “only” Son of God. What is his by nature is ours only by the unbelievably persistent grace of God, working in our sinful, messed up lives to make us “little Christs” with his constant help and intercession. As St. John Chrysostom said, God gave us his only-begotten Son, “not a servant, not an angel, not an archangel. And yet no one would show such anxiety for his own child, as God did for his ungrateful servants.”