Nm 6:22-27; Gal 4:4-7; Lk 2:16-21
For the folks at Gesù in Miami …
Jan. 1, the octave day of Christmas, is a bit of a liturgical casserole. Presently we call it the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. At different points in history, however, New Year’s Day has also marked the feasts of the Circumcision of Christ and of the Holy Name of Jesus. We still see all three ingredients in the Gospel, for example, which features Mary’s role as mother, Christ’s circumcision, and the giving of the name Jesus. Surprisingly, however, it’s the theme of the Holy Name that ties together all our readings. In the reading from the Book of Numbers, for instance, God teaches the priests to call upon His name, saying, “So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Nm 6:27). In the reading from Galatians we hear that the Holy Spirit empowers us to call God by the name “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6). Seeing that our Church is dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus, I’d like to dwell on this theme for a bit.
We’re probably so used to calling God by name that we hardly give it a second thought. But many religions traditions would find the practice strange. I’m thinking especially of two groups. One group, the ancient philosophers, saw divinity as cosmic energy, an “unmoved mover”, a source of perfection and order. This religious tradition flourishes today, of course, in Kabbalah, New Age, Buddhism and the like. Naturally, this tradition sees little point in invoking god by name, no more than we see the point in calling upon the force of gravity. Energy fields don’t hear; they don’t care. The philosophers also distanced themselves in this way from a rival group, the ancient poets. The poets had no problem naming god; in fact, they named many gods—Zeus and Kronos and Athena and the like. But these gods were not like the philosopher’s god; they were fickle, lustful, and limited by the power of the other gods. There ancient pagan world offered only two options: either gods without names, aloof and perfect gods; gods with names, meddling and highly imperfect. Two bad options.
Against this ancient backdrop, it’s easier to feel gratitude. For our God offers the best of both worlds. On the one hand, He has all the qualities of the philosopher’s god. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, without rival. On the other hand, He also has some of the better qualities of the poetic gods: He listens, answers, makes plans, has desires, and draws near His people. The name YHWH, in fact, evokes both sides of his being. The literal meaning of the name, “I am Who am,” suggests the majesty and mystery of the philsopher’s god. Still, like the poetic gods, Israel’s God does bear a name. We can call upon Him. He is near.
The nearness of God finds its ultimate fulfillment, of course, in the New Testament. There we first hear the Most Holy Name of Jesus. There we learn that a name for God is also the name of a particular man, the Son of Mary. There we learn that God, without losing an ounce of his divinity, came so close to us that that we could see him, touch him, call Him by name. A deep harmony thus emerges between the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God and the Feast of the Holy Name. Both feasts celebrate God’s nearness: the Almighty has come so close to us that He has a human mother and a human name.
Given everything we’ve said about the significance of the Holy Name, we might do well to reflect a bit on the commandment corresponding to this gift—“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.” Since the Lord’s name is a token of both majesty and nearness, observing this commandment means approaching God from two sides. On the side of majesty, we reverence God’s name. We don’t call upon Him flippantly or emptily. The Catholic liturgy models this reverence when it calls for the priest to bow his head slightly at every mention of the name of Jesus. This is one side of the second commandment.
But there is another side that perhaps we consider less often–the side of nearness. God has revealed his name to us, it seems, with a very definite purpose: to persuade us that He is the sort of God who sees, who judges, who has concrete plans for our lives, who expects us to call upon Him and to enter ever more deeply into His friendship. An important way of not using God’s name in vain, therefore, is to respect this purpose—i.e., to cultivate friendship with Him.
But how does one go about cultivating such a friendship? St. Ignatius used to describe the sort of prayer most suited to a God with a name as “colloquy” or conversation. He first encouraged the one praying to review Jesus’ words and deeds in the Gospels, and then—like Mary—“to reflect on these things in her heart.” After reflection, the one praying, in a way both intimate and reverent, was to talk to God about what stirred within him. In St. Ignatius’ words,
The colloquy is made by speaking exactly as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant speaks to a master, now asking him for a favor, now blaming himself for some misdeed, now making known his affairs to him, and seeking advice in them (Ex. Sp. #54).
As a servant to a master. Yet as one friend to another. It’s for such reverent friendship that God revealed his Holy Name. It’s left to us to see that He not have revealed it in vain.