Is there a habit that is met with great disdain today than name-dropping? Most of us hate when others do it, but have a hard time avoiding it ourselves. In an age of “networking” it is practically unavoidable—who you know is often more important than what you know. Your contacts bestow status. Christians are not exempt from this practice. In fact our eternal status is based on our contact with one Person—Christians should constantly be dropping His name—the Holy Name of Jesus. We are admonished that “there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and told “whatever you ask in My name, that I will do” (John 14:13).
Traditionally, January has been set aside as dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus and in 2011, Pope St. John Paul II restored the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus to January 3rd. Therefore it seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the name that should be the cause of every knee to bend (c.f.Phil 2:10).
The Power of a Name
A word first about names. St. Thomas says that names “should answer to the nature of a thing” (ST III, q.37, a.2). Building upon this, the Catechism says that a name is an “icon of the person” (CCC 2158). What is meant by this is that someone’s name is a sacrament of the person. Although this may have become obscure when names are often selected simply based on novelty, St. Thomas says that names ought to be “taken from some property of the men to whom they are given” (ST III, q.37, a.2). The names may be given with respect to a saint (either one to whom the parents have a particular devotion or whose feast day the person was born on) or some blood relation or even based on some quality of the person (like Esau whose name means red). The point is that the name reveals something of the person either relationally or personally.
When God gives a name it is always to signify some gift He has bestowed on them. Abraham is made the “father of nations”, Peter is made to be the “rock upon which the Church is built” and Mary identifies herself as “the Immaculate Conception” to St. Bernadette. In this regard, Jesus which means “God saves” is so named because “He will save the people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
Our Lord’s name denotes the essence of Who He is because it reveals His mission. He cannot be separated from His mission; He is never, as Pope Benedict XVI says, “off-duty.” Everything that He did and said from the moment of the Incarnation until it was finished on the Cross was to save me and save you. The power flowing from those actions touch me and you here and now. Jesus saves me right here and right now and you as well.
It was said that the name is like a sacrament of the person not just because it is a sign of the person, but also because it carries with it a power to bring about the one it signifies. This is why we name-drop—it is as if the person is present testifying for us. It also gives as the actual power to make the person present. In a loud and crowded restaurant I have the power to call the waiter to me immediately when I know his name.
This power is amplified when it comes to the name of Jesus. Eternally God, He is present at all times and always. But when I call upon His Holy Name, He is present to me not just as the source of my existence but as the source of eternal life.
This is what makes using the Lord’s name in vain so soul-deadening. God commands that the name of Jesus is holy and to be revered at all times, but not because He is somehow disrespected by us when we abuse it. The commandments are for our benefit, not God’s. He gives us this commandment so that we never forget or take for granted the privilege we have in calling upon God by name.
The power attached to the knowledge of another’s name is why the Jews in the Old Testament would not utter the name of God. Jesus’ very name (God saves) contains God’s name and thus we cannot say His name without also uttering God’s name. The Catechism captures this well in the section on Prayer saying, “the divine name may not be spoken by human lips, but by assuming our humanity The Word of God hands it over to us and we can invoke it: ‘Jesus,’ ‘YHWH saves.’ The name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies…” (CCC 2666).
If the name invokes the Person and the Person sanctifies by His presence, then we ought to make a regular habit of invoking Jesus’ name. The Church has offered a partial indulgence attached to the recitation of the Litany of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.
The Jesus Prayer
As many people look to Eastern Spirituality and non-Christian forms of prayer in the West, I would like to commend to you a practice with roots in Eastern Christianity called the Jesus Prayer. While no one knows exactly when it started, it has been in the tradition of the Eastern monks back to at least the 6th Century. In an attempt to “pray without ceasing” the monks began to repetitively say short prayers invoking the name of Jesus. The most common of these prayers was “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Rather than being a merely a mantra that seeks to empty the mind, the Jesus Prayer was meant to engage the whole person—body, heart and mind. One exhales the name of Jesus and inhale His mercy while forming a mental picture of His presence and making acts of love towards Him. Those who practice this with regularity will find it to be a powerful means of drawing closer to Our Lord by invoking Him and opening yourself up to the gift of higher levels of prayer.
In The Way of the Pilgrim, the master describes the prayer to the pilgrim saying:
“The continuous interior prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart, while forming a mental picture of His constant presence, and imploring His grace, during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep. The appeal is couched in these terms, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ One who accustoms himself to this appeal experiences as a result so deep a consolation and so great a need to offer the prayer always that he can no longer live without it, and it will continue to voice itself within him of its own accord. Now do you understand what prayer without ceasing is?”
Make us, O Lord, to have a perpetual fear and love of Your holy name, for You never fail to govern those whom You establish in Your love. You, Who live and reign forever and ever. Amen