Namer and Named
Second Sunday of the Year. Fr Leon Pereira asks, ‘What’s in a name?’
Celebrities are known for giving their children outlandish or unusual names. Indeed, it seems to be de rigueur to give your child a silly name to prove you are of A-list quality. Quite often these children renounce their monikers when they reach the age of good sense. David Bowie’s son now goes by the name Duncan Jones. It shouldn’t surprise us that someone named Zowie Bowie would want to do such a thing.
The giving of names is a serious business. It is a divine prerogative. God creates all that exists, and names them. He calls the light Day and the darkness Night, the firmament Heaven, the dry land Earth, and the waters Sea. Then God allows human beings to share in this divine prerogative.
[God brought every creature] to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2.19)
A name is supposed mean what a thing is, and so Adam says of his wife:
She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2.23)
And so it goes on in Genesis, men and women give their children names, and usually explain why they give them these names, not as interesting etymology for philologists, but as an explanation of who and what their children will be.
Occasionally, God calls someone to an end beyond that of nature, and he gives such humans a new name. So Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah and Jacob is renamed Israel. Both John the Baptist and Jesus are given their names by God, through an angel instructing their parents. God does so because only he knows who and what these people will be.
When Jesus gives names, he does not do so as though he were giving nicknames. He gives names as only God can – by making a new creation. He gives James and John the surname Boanerges, sons of thunder (cf. Mark 3.17). Simon bar-Jonah is better known by the name Jesus gives him (cf. John 1.42): Kēfa,rock, rendered as Cephas or, in Greek, Peter. Impulsive, impetuous Simon is by grace made into Peter, the rock on which Jesus builds his Church.
The experience of being seen right through and loved, of being given a new name, provokes a response of faith in those who are willing to change. Jesus is the Messiah (for Andrew), the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote (for Philip), the Son of God, the King of Israel (for Nathanael), the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life (for Peter), a man who told me all I ever did – the Christ (for the Samaritan woman), and my Lord and my God (for Thomas).
Giving oneself a name is a hasty and dangerous business. The most striking self-naming is that of John the Baptist. When asked who he is, he confesses (and the gospel reminds us that this is not a denial, but a confession): ‘I am not the Christ’ (John 1.20). Before Jesus, the divine I AM, John knows he is ‘I am not’. And so he sends his own disciples to follow Jesus. They ask Jesus where he abides, and in response to his invitation to come and see, they abide with him.
It is futile to make a name for ourselves, because we can never know and love ourselves as God does. Before God whose name is I AM, we are all ‘I am not’. Only in our nakedness and need are we ready to receive a new name, to become a new creation.
To him who conquers… I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it. (Revelations 2.17)
No one else knows the name because it is simply none of their business. As Jesus says to Peter, ‘What is that to you? You follow me!’ (John 21.22). The point of God-given names is communion with Christ, is being known and loved. ‘If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also’ (John 12.26). Come and see.