What’s in a Name?

One of the biggest challenges for parents to be is selecting a name for their child.  A whole library has been written on selecting the perfect name with advice ranging from selecting the name you would want to represent you if you were starting out your life today to naming them after your favorite city.  Choosing a name is mostly about what the parents happen to like.  A name ends up being a mere convention that distinguishes one person from another.  This is in direct contrast to the ancient world, where the name was believed to shape the destiny of the person.  Judging by the fact that among the Top Ten names for boys and girls born in 2014 included names like Mason (which means “one who works with stone”) and Mia (“rebellious”), one would assume that this is no longer the case.  But unless we reacquaint ourselves with this idea, we may not grasp that “everyone’s name is sacred” because it is found on the “lips” of God when He calls each of us by name (see CCC 2158).  To help see this more clearly, it is helpful to look at the great importance Sacred Scripture places on names.

The Catechism says that the name is an “icon of the person” (CCC 2158).  What this means is that knowing a person’s name gives you access to the person and opens the door to a personal relationship with them.  Knowing a person’s name carries the power of the person with it.  In essence it gives you a power over the other person because you can invoke their power.

The best example of this principle is found when Jacob wrestled with the angel (Gn 32:22-31).  After “grappling with God” Jacob receives a new name (Israel) and asks the angel for his name.  The angel refuses to give Israel his name but instead blesses him.    This is because Jacob could have no power over the angel, including invoking him at another time.

In general, mankind cannot have power over the angelic world and so we should learn the lesson of Jacob and not seek the name of angels.  Adam was given the power to know the name of all material creatures (see Gen 2:20) but not the angels.  While Sacred Scripture reveals the names of three Archangels—Michael, Gabriel and Raphael—we should never give our Guardian Angels names.  Instead the Church tells us in a 1984 CDF document, bearing the signature of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, that we should only invoke them by their title (i.e. Guardian Angel).  In response to those that encourage us to ask our guardian angel for his name, the future Pontiff says the names of our guardian angels are unknowable and we should never invoke them under a specific name because of the danger it poses.  He says it is dangerous because one can never know whether it is a good angel or a bad angel that is responding to you.  In fact, because a blessed angel would never disobey God’s dictates through the Church of which they are members, you can guarantee that the name you received either came from your imagination or from a demon.  By invoking that “revealed” name, you may be inviting the demonic.  This is also what makes the social media hyped “Charlie-Charlie Challenge” so dangerous.

This notion of a name giving power over another is still recognized today.  This is why people in the “service” industry wear name tags.  It allows the customer to call upon the person to supply them with what they need.  It is also why many people naturally recoil having a name tag on in a social setting.  It assumes a relationship with everyone else who sees it that does not yet exist.  It is also why some people are constantly “name-dropping”—it is meant to somehow reveal that they share in the power or celebrity of the person they are naming (whether they actually do or not).

Scripture also shows how a name reveals the person in its treatment of those whose names it records and those it obliterates.  Notice how at the beginning of the Book of Exodus (which has the Hebrew title “The Book of Names”) it lists the names of the Patriarchs of Israel and mentions how Pharaoh did not know Joseph.  Given Joseph’s role in preserving Egypt during the famine it is not likely that Pharaoh did not know about him.  Instead it shows a refusal to recognize him and attempts to blot out his name from history.  It is actually the opposite that happens.  While the book tells the names of the midwives responsible for saving the children of Israel, it never mentions Pharaoh’s name as a form of judgment against him.  It is meant to show that his name is blotted out from the book of life (see Exodus 32:33).  It also explains why John never mentions the name of the anti-Christ in the Book of Revelation even though he clearly had his name revealed to him (Rev 13:18).  He too shall be blotted out of the Book of Life.

With this in mind, we begin to see why the Commandment was given not to take the Lord’s name in vain.  In revealing His name to Moses, God not only revealed Himself personally, but also gave the speaker a share in His power.  Moses is the first man in Salvation History to perform miracles because He was able to invoke the name of God.  To call upon the name of the Lord is to somehow make Him present.

hebrew ten commandments

I am convinced that this it is the Second Commandment that is the one that is most often broken.  Certainly this occurs when the name of God is used as part of a curse, but more commonly when we “say” our prayers without reflecting on what we have done by calling upon Him.  He has given us the power to call upon Him anywhere, anytime and He will come.  Unfortunately we are often too dull of heart to realize how awesome a gift this is—Almighty God comes to me sitting down to pray simply by calling His name.

To use God’s name in vain is to say it and then essentially ignore Him.  If we are driven by love then we ought to take this Commandment seriously and stay away from movies and music that use His name in vain.  Likewise when we encounter someone who regularly says OMG and GD we should not idly stand by.  We may not always be in a position to fraternally correct them but we can certainly make sure that He is not called upon in vain by adding “Blessed be His Name.”

The reverence that Israel had for the name of God was what ultimately led to the charge of blasphemy against Our Lord.  To use His name not only invoked His presence but because of the nature of His name made the speaker equivalent to Him.  Because God’s name contains the first person singular (“I AM” or “I AM WHO AM”) to even say His name was to say you are Him.  That is why there should never be any confusion as to whether Jesus knew He was God.  No faithful Jew would have said that name otherwise.

Names are also associated with a change in mission.  When God gives Abram a mission, He gives Him the name Abraham to identify him with his mission (“father of many”).  When Simon identifies Jesus as God, he is called Cephas to identify him as the rock upon which the new Israel will be built (as compared to the pillar of stone where Jacob received his new mission and name—Gn 35:10).  In this way names are viewed as sacraments—tangible signs of the mission of the person.

This sacramental quality of names is most obvious in the case of Jesus.  The Catechism captures this well in the section on Prayer sayin, “…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).

Let us call upon the name of the Lord and be saved!

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