Among the peoples of the ancient world, a person’s name was a very powerful thing. It revealed something of his essence, or at least of his parents’ expectations of what he was to be in life. It gave a certain power over the person, for by knowing a person’s name were are able to summon him, or at least to get his attention. To exchange personal names was a mark of affection and respect, perhaps even love.
To the peoples of the Old Testament, above all, the name of God was sacred. Like a human name, God’s name revealed His Essence. When Moses first encountered God in the Burning Bush, the name God gave indicated that He was the ground of all being and existence— «I AM WHO AM» —the One who always was and will be, and from Whom all things have existence.
Not long thereafter, while escorting the people out of Egypt on the way to the Promised Land, God gave them His Commandments—and right after the Commandment prohibiting the worship of other gods and the making of idols, God instructed them: «Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that shall take the name of the Lord his God in vain.»
Understandably, the Jewish people were scrupulously careful with God’s name. They often referred, simply, to “The Name” or to “The Lord.” The name referring to God as the ground of existence, was preserved as a sort of monogram without vowels Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh (YHVH in our letters), and was not pronounced at all, except by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
When the Son of God determined to take flesh and become man, His human name was determined in advance, and revealed independently to both Mary and Joseph. First to Mary:
Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of David his father: and he shall reign in the house of Jacob for ever. And of his kingdom there shall be no end.
and then to Joseph:
Behold the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins.
“He shall save His people from their sins”—that is why He is called “Jesus. The name “Jesus” comes to us through Latin from Greek—Iesous, a transliteration of the Hebrew Jeshua, or Joshua, or Jehoshua—“God is salvation." There were others in the Old Testament who bore the same name, even one of our Lord’s ancestors mentioned in Saint Luke’s Gospel—but, ultimately, this Holy Name belongs to Jesus Christ in an exclusive way, for only He can be said to be the true Savior of His people—the “many that shall come from the east and the west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Only He is “the Christ—the Anointed One” of God.
The obligation of the Commandment, of course, extends to all of the names with which people refer to God. In some derivative degree it extends to all things, persons, and places that are holy. Although most of the Commandments are phrased in terms of what we “shalt not” do, there is a positive obligation here of using God’s name only with reverence—never for trivial things, and certainly not in anger or intended as an obscenity. One of the bizarre things about modern American culture is the fact that we feel free to use the name of God as a vulgarity, but feel embarrassed to use our vulgar words in public—if you must be vulgar, it would be far better not to involve God or His Holy Name.
But, indeed, it is praiseworthy to name God frequently in prayer and in praise. Just about every Catholic prayer starts out with the Sign of the Cross, “In the name of the Father...” or with the recognition that “Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.” Pious custom has us mention, occasionally or even frequently, the names of “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph”; has us beg, “My Jesus, mercy”; “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner”; and so forth.
Today, only the second day of the new year, is a good time to make the resolution to use the Holy Name and holy things only with the greatest of reverence. Admittedly, this may be difficult for some of us. We live in a culture that has become very casual. Fifty or a hundred years ago, people were much more concerned with the concepts of respect and reverence. Decent people respected one another; even those with whom they shared no common ground of race, religion, politics, or social class. We didn’t use God’s name in vain very much, but then again, we didn’t use anyone’s name very casually—we didn’t show up anywhere of importance (religious or secular) improperly dressed or habitually late. We didn’t talk in church, but we also didn’t talk out of turn in the schoolroom, the courtroom, or even in many places of business.
It may not be possible to “turn back the tide” of irreverence and disrespect in civil society, but we must do so in our religious life, in every degree that it is necessary. You have seen the note on the bulletin board about the “decorum” expected in the Catholic Church. It does not matter what they do in the “other church,” or in other religions. If we are at all conscious of our Catholic Faith—as, certainly, we should be!—we must, necessarily, be conscious of the sacred nature of God in everything associated with Him, from His throne in heaven, to His altar right here in our church; from His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, to His operation in all of the Sacraments, and on down to the level of our personal prayers and sacramentals.
Whenever we do anything concerned with God and our Holy Faith, we would do well to think of the sacredness of the Holy Name. Everything that we set out to do “in the name of the Father and of the Son...” ought to be done with carefulness, respect, and reverence from start to finish—from our morning prayers, through our frequent and orderly attendance at Mass, till our bedtime prayers at night. From Baptism to burial, our lives must be filled with piety, devotion and reverence for all that is holy and represented by God’s Holy Name.
«I AM WHO AM» is the ground of all the goodness of God’s creation. «HE WHO IS» has given us Jesus, the Anointed One, as our Savior. He has given us, also, His Holy Name—both as a token of His friendship and love for us, and as a reminder of all that is holy. It is our duty to respond in kind: with love and with respect.