Right now, at this time and in this place, what’s your name? No, not the name that appears on all your legal documents. What’s the name that all your acquaintances and friends know you by, the name that every one calls you, the one that you instantly answer to? Is it the same as it was a year ago, five years ago, twenty years ago?
When I think about the evolution of my name I can clearly identify the eras of my life based on my name. Mom had two names for me; you know, the one when you were in trouble and the one when you weren’t. When we were kids everyone called me by the shortened version of my formal first name. I didn’t give it that much thought but when I got my first professional job I had to get used to being called Ms. with my last name attached. Huh, oh yes that IS me! I met new friends and I gained a nick-name that I never had before. I liked it! My interests grew and developed and when I sang those concerts and recitals it was very important for my formal first name to appear in the programs. In my most recent incarnation as an author, I decided that I needed to be known by my formal first name, my middle initial, in deference to my mother, and my last name.
So the mark of our personal evolution and the events of our life can often be reflected in our name. Interestingly enough, the Bible supports the importance of “naming” from beginning to end. In Genesis 1:20 we see that after the act of creation God actually grants Adam the privilege of naming all the creatures. Then we are specifically told about the naming of his mate: “This is to be called woman, for this was taken from man” (Gen 2:23). We then see that man gives woman a new name, Eve, after the fall (Gen 3:20) has occurred. In Genesis 17 the patriarch Abram receives a new name, Abraham. This occurs after Abram strikes a covenant with the Lord and he becomes the father of the chosen people. After this occurs he is also instructed to change the name of his wife Sari to Sarah because “kings of peoples shall descend from her” (Gen17:16). God also instructs what the name of the son she will bear is to be, Isaac (Gen 17:19).
The next powerful example centered on naming is in Genesis 27:23. Jacob steals Esau’s blessing from Isaac by imitating his brother, essentially assuming his name for the purpose of the fraud. The seriousness of the act is noted later as Isaac demonstrates that the blessing cannot be taken back or re-given. It was given to the named person, despite the fact that this person was an imitator. As time passes, Jacob matures and meets God face to face. In a wrestling match that lasts all night, he demands a blessing (Gen 32:27), this time legitimate. God grants the blessing but then changes Jacob’s name to Israel (Struggles with God) because “you have been strong against God and you shall prevail against men” (Gen 32:27). At the end of this story Jacob’s parting act is to demand the stranger’s name. He never receives an answer. Following, in the book of Exodus, we see that the one thing that Moses asks to know from God is His name (3:13). The answer is both puzzling and elegant at the same time; “I Am Who I Am”. The Book of Numbers gives another example of name change, Moses chooses the men that he will send out to do reconnaissance in the land of Canaan. Before they leave he changes the name of Hosea to Joshua. Hosea means “salvation” and Joshua means “God delivers”. Joshua was the leader later chosen by Moses to take the Hebrews into the Promise Land.
In the New Testament, the only Gospel with an infancy narrative is the Book of Luke. Since this event is the seminal occurrence of human history you might think that it would be the first story told by the writer, but this is not the case. The first narrative in Luke’s Gospel is the birth of John the Baptist. Oddly enough the story contains a detailed account of his naming. The incident is not recalled once, but three times! First, in Luke 1:14 where Gabriel gives Zechariah specific instructions about John’s name. Next, in the same narrative, 1:61, Elizabeth insists, at the circumcision, that the boy's name will be John (God is Gracious). Finally, Zechariah whose power of speech was taken by the angel writes on a tablet: “His name is John” (1:63). Folded in to this narrative is Mary’s arrival to visit Elizabeth . In Elizabeth ’s initial greeting, Mary receives an instant name change from her cousin who had no prior knowledge of her pregnancy. Elizabeth sees Mary and instantly calls her: “The mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43). Elizabeth , however, was not the first one to give her cousin a new name. Mary’s identity was first changed earlier at the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel greets her in an extraordinary way. He does not speak her name but instead says: “Hail full of grace” (Lk 1:28). This greeting is extraordinary in more ways than one. First we must remember that the deliverer of this message, Gabriel, is from God himself. Next, in this culture, the greeting “Hail” was only used for royalty. So how is it that this Hebrew peasant girl is regarded in such a way? Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household explains the passage this way: from the angel’s greeting we see that “Mary’s truest identity is in grace. Mary’s grace is undoubtedly in function of what the angel then went on to announce to her, that is her role as the Messiah’s Mother…. “ (Magnificat, September 19, 2008 p.273).
In scripture, there are two name changes that are more widely known than the others already discussed. These are, of course, Peter and Paul. Notably, these two apostles were chiefly responsible for bringing the Church to the known world in those early centuries. Peter is often called the Apostle to the Jews and Paul is often called the Apostle to the World (The Gentiles). In Matthew 16: 15-18 Jesus raises the question of how he is perceived: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Simon immediately speaks up and identifies him as the Christ. Jesus’ response to this is to instantly change Simon’s name to Peter and give him a prophecy: “… and on this Rock I will build my church”. The tantalizing fact about this prophecy is that hundreds of years after the Vatican was constructed valid archaeological evidence was revealed to confirm the fact that St. Peter’s was actually constructed over a Roman necropolis. The bones of St. Peter himself were found to be directly under the high altar of the Basicillica!
St. Paul ’s story is equally fascinating. He was raised as a good Jew and trained as a Pharisee, basically a “cannon lawyer” of the times who was an expert in the Torah. Christianity, the new religion, was spreading and he considered it an honor to be a defender of Judaism against it. After eagerly witnessing the martyrdom of Stephan he set out for Damascus with letters from the high priest giving him authority to arrest any followers of Christ. He believed, in his bones, that he was doing a great service for God. During his travels he had a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ in a vision. He was struck from his horse and heard Jesus ask him “…why are you persecuting me?” The rest of his party heard the apparition also, but the only thing visible to all was an incredible light. From that moment on Saul became an even more zealous servant of God. In the surrounding country this lead to some confusion because everyone knew that he was a vigorous persecutor of Christians. Nonetheless, Saul never looked back. He made his way on a mission from the Holy Spirit and actually preached the word of God in the synagogs of Cypress. There, he was challenged by a powerful Jewish magician named Bar-jesus. Scripture then tells us: “Saul whose other name is Paul, looked him full in he face and said, ‘You utter fraud, you imposter, you son of the devil. You enemy of all true religion, why don’t you stop twisting the straightforward ways of the Lord (Acts 12:10)?’” So again, we see a name change in conjunction with a life altering event. The name Paul means “humble”. This was an interesting transition for the young man who arrogantly persecuted the early Christians but wound up writing more than half of the bible and submitting to unrelenting torture and persecution himself as he steadfastly guided the communities of new Christians with grace and patience. He submitted to martyrdom and they say that three springs spontaneously flowed on the three spots where his head bounced! All this transpired without Paul ever meeting Jesus face to face.
This repeating theme of “naming” appears in Scripture up to and including the book of Revelation. In this book the idea of naming seems to carry us to “other realms” as it suggests what the New Heaven and New Earth will be like. In Revelation 2:17 John is instructed by Jesus to write down this: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: to those who prove victorious I will give the hidden manna and a white stone—a stone with a new name written on it, known only to the man who receives it.” And again in 13:12: “Those who prove victorious I will make into pillars in the sanctuary of my God and they will stay there for ever; I will inscribe on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God in heaven, and my own new name as well.” With an eye toward the eternal future Jesus then tells us that even he will get a new name. “Naming”, then, is far more serious then a matter of choice or cleverness or an exercise in creativity.
How have you been paying attention to your own “naming” as the phases of your life unfold? We see from these numerous examples in the Bible that, however it happens, a name change can be the precursor to a change in identity or role. If you have experienced a name change at any time in your life, what did that bring with it? What role did God reveal to you that was marked by your change of name? Maybe you weren’t paying attention. In Mary’s case, her name change was clearly the doorway to her new role for the world, Full of Grace. In Joshua’s case it was clearly a missing puzzle piece which completed God’s expectations for him as his name moved from “salvation” to “God delivers”. Even Jesus knows that his name will change as mankind moves to the age of the New Jerusalem. His role there will no longer be Savior because in the City of God all who are present are the ones who are saved. God's expectations for all of us are dynamic during our life here as well as in eternity.
The only one who knows our truest nature is God the Father. Some spend a life time seeking to know what that is. At our baptism as well as our confirmation we received new names that reflect our roles in the kingdom. Have you looked at those occasions and just kind of passed them off as nice rituals and nothing more? Do you have a confirmation or baptismal or middle name that you just don’t use? Has someone given you a nick name? Take another look, how did your name change at those times? How and when did your name change during your life time? What was God showing you about your “true nature” and his loving vision and expectation of who you are for the Kingdom? Spend some time contemplating the name changes in your life. Examine the gifts of “naming” that you have received. Perhaps you have passed up some of the most important information that God ever gave you, right there, hiding in plain sight. What’s in your name? There’s more to that than meets the eye!
Copyright 2008, Kathryn M. Cunningham, All rights reserved.
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