Reflections: Names? They’re not just identity tags
By Fr Joseph Sobb SJ
As she grew older, my mother used to claim that she always turned to read the death notices first. Birth notices also can provide interesting reading, especially for their literary style and for the names given to the newborn child. A birth announcement can often carry more than mere information.
In the world of Dune, a science fiction series of novels, each desert dweller has a special name which may only be used within the “Sietch” or tribal group.
It is a sign of belonging. During the Advent and Christmas seasons, we encounter many people whose names are known to us only because they feature in the Bible.
Names in biblical narratives are not simply identity tags. They carry a weight of meaning beyond that, for they are filled with resonances, and invite the listener or reader to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s dialogue with Israel and with the whole human family. A name can become a potent emblem. Herod, for instance, conjures up deadly power; while unobtrusive fidelity marks Anna of the New Testament, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel. Both the gospels of Matthew and Luke, insist that Mary’s child is to be named “Yeshua (Jesus)” which derives from the Hebrew root “to save” and which will be turned against Jesus on the cross: “He saved others, he cannot save himself.”
The Scriptures abound in genealogies with familiar names and unpronounceable ones, with endless lists and obscure information, with fathers and occasionally mothers, with sons but rarely daughters. They raise all sorts of questions and may provoke all sorts of responses, from apathy or boredom to perplexity, incredulity or wonder.
It is usual in our culture and society for history to record the names of presidents and popes, generals and governors, the great ones of the earth. Surprisingly, the Bible frequently preserves the names of the little ones, too – Abraham and Sarah, Ruth and Naomi, Elizabeth and Mary Magdalene, Zaccheus and John Mark. “Their bodies are buried in peace,” says the book of Ecclesiasticus. “But their name lives on for ever.” Often, too, names were changed pointing to a new destiny.
Telling over the names in stories and songs reminds God’s people of its tradition, for these are the enduring symbols of God’s loving work. A world without photo albums and CD ROMs treasured their story in the unfolding of a genealogy. Names evoked memories and shared dreams; they called forth hope and endurance, they sustained faith and faithfulness, they nurtured love and communion.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah proclaims that a child soon to be born will be known as Emmanuel, God-is-with-us. The child’s name is inextricably identified with the God of Israel.
The Christian community saw this promise realised perfectly in Jesus.
Perhaps the grace of Christmas is to celebrate the gift of our common humanity and the preciousness of each human person.
As we name one another, we are recognising and reverencing Emmanuel in the other. Yes, your name matters.
Fr Joe is academic secretary and teaches Biblical Studies in the Catholic Institute of Sydney; he is Superior in the Jesuit Community, Mt Druitt