By Cardinal Justin RigaliArchbishop of Philadelphia
We have just concluded the month of January, during which the Church recalls in a special way the Holy Name of Jesus. Let us take that, along with the subject of names in general, as our topic this week.
The importance of a nameMany of us have experienced the power of a name. Parents love to repeat the name of their infant child, as they look upon this wonderful gift, in whose creation they have cooperated; lovers delight in saying the name of the beloved; and the sick and the dying must often be content with merely speaking the name of their loved ones, having no strength to say more. We should not view these realities as mere sentimentality or signs of human weakness. Throughout the Scriptures, God has highlighted the importance of names in His relationship with His creatures.
In reflecting on the importance of names in the Scriptures, we find that a certain name is often given to a person, or changed from one name to another, in order to indicate the vocation of that person, or his or her place in the work of salvation.
In the book of Genesis, we are told that Eve was given her name “because she became the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). Abram’s name was changed to Abraham by God, who explained the meaning of Abram’s new name by telling him: “For I am making you the father of a host of nations” (Genesis 17:5). This pact with the Chosen People was completed by God telling Abraham that his wife’s name, Sarai, would be changed to Sara, because this changing of names signified the binding of a covenant (cf., Genesis 17:15).
We know the great care that was taken in the naming of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, who would prepare His way. John’s father had been struck mute because of his lack of belief in the message of the angel, that he and his elderly wife would bear a son. When he followed God’s command as to the naming of the child at his birth, his speech was restored and he was given the gift of prophecy. (cf., Luke 1:57-64). We are also familiar with the change which Jesus made in the name of Simon, whom He called Peter, meaning “rock.” This was to indicate Peter’s mission as the rock upon which Jesus would build His Church (cf. Matthew 16:18).
The name “above every name”In his Letter to the Philippians (2:9), Paul refers to the name of Jesus as “the name that is above every name.”
“For the Jews the ‘name that is above every name’ is the name of God…which the Mosaic Law required to be held in particular awe. Also, they regarded a name given to someone, especially if given by God, as not just a way of referring to a person but as expressing something that belonged to the very core of his personality” (Commentary, the Navarre Bible).
We know the care with which our Lord’s name was given Him, as reflected in the commands given to Mary and Joseph in the Gospels: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31) and “She (Mary) will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
The Catechism of the Council of Trent (I: 3,5,6) teaches: “Jesus is the proper name of the God-man and signifies ‘Saviour’ – a name given him not accidentally, or by the judgement or will of man, but by the counsel and command of God. All other names given to the Son of God are comprised in this one name Jesus, for this name includes the force and meaning of all human salvation.” In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus speaks of Paul as one who “will have to suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16) and St. Peter heals the lame man “in the name of Jesus,” and reminds his hearers that “by faith in his name, this man, whom you see and know, his name has made strong” (Acts 3:1-16).
The origin, significance and power of the name of Jesus has caused it to be invoked through the centuries because it summarizes all that Jesus is for us: our Savior. Savior in humbling Himself to take flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary; Savior in the poverty of Bethlehem; Savior in the obedience of Nazareth; Savior in His public life, miracles and teaching; Savior in taking our sins upon Himself in His Passion; Savior in dying on the Cross out of love for us; Savior in overcoming death for our salvation; and Savior in the happiness of heaven, where He has prepared a place for those who have been faithful. All this is summed up in the name Jesus.
Our responseAll of these beautiful facts concerning the name of Jesus certainly call for a response on our part. Certainly, it must be a response of faith and confidence in this name. It must also be one of respect for a name that is so full of meaning. In thinking of the importance of names in our own lives, can we ever imagine using the name of someone we love as a curse? Yet, in taking the name of Jesus, of God, or of Christ in vain, that is what we do! Most of the time, it may not be intentional, but at the very least it is a great act of ingratitude.
While examining ourselves on how we treat the name of Jesus, we must also think of how it is treated in our homes and our places of work. Is the Holy Name used in vain by family members? Is it treated that way at our place of work? Do we go to see movies or watch television shows in which God’s name is used in vain? What blessings can we expect upon a home or place of business in which God’s name is treated with disrespect?
This is not a new problem. In fact the invocations which we recite at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, known as the “spanine Praises,” were prescribed as an act of reparation for the times the name of God is taken in vain. In a spirit of love and faith, we say: “Blessed be God, Blessed be His Holy Name, Blessed be the Name of Jesus.” He is everything for us, and His name summarizes His mission.
This reflection on the importance of names in the Scriptures, and the origin and power of the “name above every name,” should lead us to reflect on the importance of names in general. With the firm Scriptural foundation that we have briefly summarized here, the naming of children has always been significant in both Jewish and Christian practice. Our Christian custom has been to name children after the saints in heaven, so that they might have models whom they may learn about and seek to imitate. A corollary of this is the naming of children after family members, thereby showing a continuity within that basic structure of society, the family, and giving inspaniduals a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.
The latest Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983, reminds us that “parents, sponsors and the pastor are to see that a name foreign to a Christian mentality is not given (to children at Baptism)” (Canon 855). We place emphasis on this, not because it is the mere fulfillment of a law, but because of the power and significance of a name.
Pope Benedict XVI recently spoke of the importance of giving Christian names at Baptism. After baptizing 21 infants in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, the Pope said: “Every baptism should ensure that the child is given a Christian name, an unmistakable sign that the Holy Spirit will allow the person to blossom in the bosom of the Church. Do not give your children names that are not in the Christian calendar.”
It would seem that now, more than ever, when society and the family are often fractured, and when young people are anxious to feel a part of something stable and affirming, the practice of naming children after the saints has very great value.
As we conclude our thoughts on the name of Jesus and the significance of a name, we may wish to make our own a much-loved prayer of English Catholics of the sixteenth century, especially those who were being persecuted for their fidelity to Christ’s Church. They would often repeat, even in the midst
of great suffering: “Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi Jesus,” which means: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, be to me Jesus (Savior).”
3 February 2011