In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare famously asked, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Names convey not only an identity, but also one’s familiarity, intimacy, and attention with the subject. We are each taught the names of our surroundings in our infancy so as to be able to associate experiences and qualities with them. And this spirit of discovery continues even today, with great ceremony being performed upon uncovering an unknown celestial body, lifeform, or element. To name something is to also claim dominion over it. In Scripture, for example, Adam was tasked to name the creatures of the earth. In Genesis we read, “So the LORD God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.” To call something by name implies a relationship with the person or thing named. That is why when Moses asked God Who he should say sent him to free the Hebrews from slavery, the Lord revealed the Divine Name:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
This example illustrates the power of God’s Name. It is how He identifies Himself to the people of Israel and legitimizes their relationship as His Chosen People.
God’s name is also sacred and demands respect. Recall the Second Commandment, as written in the Old Testament: “You shall not invoke the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. or the LORD will not leave unpunished anyone who invokes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7 and Dt 5:11) The name of God is so holy that the Jewish people dare not even pronounce it out loud. As Catholics, we are similarly taught that God’s name is of the utmost holiness and should only be invoked in one’s speech to bless, praise, or glorify the Lord (cf. CCC 2142-2149). His name must never be abused by careless speech, false oaths, words of hatred, defiance of God, or used in unholy ceremonies. This applies to the name of Jesus as well:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
In his 2007 book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI observed that God established a relationship with mankind when He revealed His name to Moses. The Incarnation, he continued, was then the fulfillment of the process that “had begun with the giving of the divine name” (Benedict XVI, 144). This relationship did not make man equal to God but “protect[s] the wonderful mystery of his accessibility to us, and constantly assert[s] his true identity as opposed to our distortion of it”(Benedict XVI, 144-145). And Christ Himself underscored the sanctity of His Father’s Name with the inclusion of “hallowed be thy name” in the prayer He taught His disciples. We pray with these words each week in Mass. As we do, have we realized the importance of what we are saying?
To remind us of this truth, the Church has instituted the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (in its current form) as an optional memorial to be celebrated on January 3 of each year since 2002 (but originally established by Pope Innocent XIII on December 20, 1721). How great a gift that the Lord God Almighty has so intimately revealed Himself to us! Unfortunately, in today’s society there is no limit to the number of times when our culture irreverently invokes God’s name in the media, creative works, and everyday conversation. As we begin a new calendar year, how can we better model respect and humility when using God’s holy name? Can we do anything in our classrooms, workplaces, or online profiles to witness a life of respect and reverence for God? As Catholics, we are blessed to be able to pray to and know a personal God who has revealed not only His name, but even sent His only Begotten Son to be among us—something we remember this Christmas season. Let us rejoice in this knowledge and continue to cry out with our lives, “O Lord, our God, How awesome is Your name through all the earth!” -Psalm 8:2
Thomas Wong is a young professional in Washington, DC.