St Edmund's Episcopal Church San Marino

Naming the Mystery

This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on January 1st, 2016.

The arrival of a New Year is brimful of hope. Tower bells ring and firecrackers pop. Crowds swarm London’s Trafalgar Square, the Zocalo in Mexico City, New York’s Time Square, and the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. We attend parties, make resolutions, and, in these parts, revel as the greatest parade on the planet marches down Colorado Boulevard New Year’s Day!

The Feast of the Holy Name is observed on the first day of January, sounding a spiritual note as we stride into our three-hundred-sixty-five days of fresh possibility. Parents everywhere take considerable care in naming a child. In many cultures a child’s name honors family lineage or embodies characteristics felt to reside within the newborn. Mary and Joseph were no different. They called their child “Jesus,” the Greek version (in that increasingly diversifying cultural context) of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” meaning “he will save.”

Names are potent totems in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. In the Hebrew myth of origin, God bequeaths to humankind the power to name the creatures of the earth, and, by that naming, to reflect on the meaning of those things defined. Words and language are the creative tools by which we make sense and science, literature and poetry, take our own measure and weave wisdom and meaning into the tapestry of our years.

At the burning bush, when Moses asks God’s Name, God replies “I Am Who I Am,” and this becomes ever after the cultic Name for God, probably pronounced ‘YAHWEH.’ ‘The One who causes to be,’ ‘I Am Who I Am,’ evokes an engaged and sustaining God unwilling to be circumscribed within any religious or doctrinal system. God won’t be nailed down and can’t be fully understood, and we err whenever we pretend otherwise.

Instead, our task is to name the world after God in beatitude and blessing, respecting the dignity of each, and promoting the well-being of all. What we say and how we say it resonates in the public square, on the world stage, and in the quiet of our homes.

T.S. Eliot, in a passage from The Four Quartets, wrote of how challenging it can be to use words well:

Words strain,
Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

In the year ahead we ought to strive to choose our words with care and in service to the common good. Perhaps we could add this goal to our annual list of resolutions! The Feast of the Holy Name reminds us that there is a spiritual dimension to speech and language. God, who is the possession of none, has nevertheless given us the power to shape the world we inhabit through the ways we speak to one another, about one another, and with one another; and to do this well is to honor the mystery.