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Take care of the Holy Name, the rest will follow

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The Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet. Photo: Google Arts & Culture/Wikipedia, Public Domain
The Angelus by Jean-Francois Millet. Photo: Google Arts & Culture/Wikipedia, Public Domain

I’m a big believer in small, achievable goals. There are times when it’s appropriate to take a giant leap and commit to drastic changes, and there are times when drastic changes are forced upon us, and we have to decide whether to handle it poorly or well. But most of life is about little things. It’s the little things that end up being big.

The name of Jesus is one such “little thing.” I say it’s little because it comes into our life so rapidly, and then disappears again. It takes a fraction of a second to say; it takes up a tiny space in print or on your phone screen. Just a little breath of air, a precarious second on the lips and tongue, or a little sliver of dark pixels on a bright field, and then it’s gone again: Jesus.

So, how do we treat this name? Carefully. Carefully, is my advice. I hope that most Catholics will, at least, refrain from using the Holy Name as a curse word, or as an exclamation of surprise. If not, that’s the place to start. When you say “Jesus,” mean Jesus, and not anything else.

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(I’m thinking of my mother, who willingly took her elderly Jewish parents into our home to care for them, but eventually got fed up with hearing her father use “Jesus” as an expression of irritation. She eventually blurted out, “You know, Dad, if you keep calling him, he’s going to show up.” That made him stop!)

If you can eradicate actual profane use of the name of Jesus from your own vocabulary, a reasonable next step is to make a commitment to show reverence to the name when other people use it, either rightly or wrongly. Some people will say “Blessed be the name of Jesus” as a small act of reparation, if they hear someone using the name irreverently.

If you’re not up for that (and it can be very awkward, depending on the situation), you can probably manage to bow your head whenever you hear the name. Bowing one’s head at the name of Jesus is a good practice on any occasion, whether you’re making reparation for irreverence, or simply showing reverence when someone uses the name appropriately. It doesn’t have to be a big, showy thing. Just lower your eyes and bow your head briefly.

What is the point of all this? It’s a practice that I think of as putting things in their proper order. Order doesn’t sound like much until you’ve lived with profound disorder, or come to recognise how much disorder makes up your life. Order is everything. Not tidiness or rigidity or devotion to routine, but the true and right weighting of all the thoughts, words, and deeds that define us. If we have not fixed Jesus as the immovable centre, with everything else remaining negotiable, then there can be no order.

Our daily lives constantly try to disarrange us, make the wrong things seem important, waste our energy on foolish or harmful or trivial ideas, and take our attention away from what is lasting and will sustain us. This is what the world has been like since the fall of Adam: Like a snow globe that’s constantly being shaken, and every time things start to fall into place and make sense again, someone shakes it, and our lives become flux and chaos. We forget where our centre is, and small things grab our attention and then leave us bereft, over and over again.

But when we say the name of Jesus with reverence, everything is in its right place, even if only for a moment. It’s a quick thing, but so powerful. When we stop and make the effort to remember that the Holy Name is above all other names, it reminds us: Jesus is present with us right now, this very second; Jesus is Sacred, set apart from all other things; Jesus is the one always worthy of stopping for. Jesus is the one who can put our lives in order. Jesus IS order. We need this reminder, every day, throughout the day.

And when we commit to speaking his name only with care, and never allowing it to pass by our ears without a moment of reverence, we are using human breath, the sign that life is in us, to do the thing that life is meant for: To turn to God. To receive him, to recognize him. This is what we are made to do. What a gift to be able to fulfill our ontological purpose perfectly, if only for a second.

If we take the care with the Holy Name this often enough, it begins to permeate our whole lives, and change how we see the Lord, and how we see ourselves. How could it not? In the beginning was the Word. Words matter, and this word, above all others, matters. Blessed be the name of Jesus.

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