Sunday, May 24, 2009

What's in a name?

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2009:

“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.” Keep them in your name. In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare raised the question, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Our Gospel today asks us much the same question as Jesus prays to the Father to keep His followers in God’s Name. What’s in a name? Just think of your family. One of the outward signs that unites a family are the common names we share. People often want to know – what are your family names? Last names are important. First names are important. For myself, every time I find out someone is pregnant, I remind them what a beautiful name Thomas is. No takers yet. But, isn’t it a source of pride when the newest member of your family becomes your namesake?

I was reading in Time Magazine this week about names. You know, not too long ago, Catholics always gave their children religious names – naming them after Biblical or saintly individuals. Why? Because a name says something, means something. It says something about who we are, and something about who we hope to be. This is less the case today. We live in an age where names come from wherever – movies, television, sometimes just made up. Just to give you an example. My two beautiful twin nieces are named Samantha and Makayla. For the life of me, I still can’t figure out how to spell Makayla. Is it Michaela, is it Mikhala, is it Makayla? The good news, according to Time is that in our post-9/11 world, people are returning to Biblical names for their children. The top three boys names last year were Jacob, Michael and Joshua – all good Old Testament names. Popular among girls are not necessarily Biblical, but definitely spiritual. Girls are being named things like Destiny, Genesis, Trinity and perhaps the most interesting one Nevaeh. That’s Heaven spelled backwards.

What’s in a name? Well, our name is reflective of our identity. It tells people who we are, where we come from. It is attached to our reputation for whatever we have done good or bad in the world. Just think of some names in our history – all you have to do is say the name and it instantly calls up its heritage. Names like Hitler, Bin Laden or John Paul, Mother Teresa and so on, need no further explanation. The name alone tells a story of the person. Whether famous or infamous the mere mention of their names brings to mind their deeds and you react with acceptance or rejection.

There is a story told about the famous Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. As he went out for a walk one day near his summer home, a little girl joined him and strolled with him for a while. When the girl announced that she had to go home, her distinguished companion commented proudly of himself, “When your mother asks you where you have been, you can tell her that you have been walking with Oliver Wendell Homes.” Unimpressed, the little girl replied, “And when your Mom asks you where you have been, you can tell her that you were walking with Mary Susanna Brown.”

At the beginning of the Rite of Baptism, the very first question asked of parents is, “What name do you give your child?” This name is carefully written in the permanent records of the Church and over the years the dates of other important sacraments will also be recorded. The Church marks with pride the milestones of growth in the Christian faith and practice of each person who enters this family through the waters of Baptism. It is through this Baptism that we are welcomed into the Christian community as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, and it is through Him that we come to know God as our Father.

In our Gospel today, Jesus prays for us, to the Father and asks that we be kept in God’s Name. He knows how important a name is and so He gives us the identity of the most important name ever – the name of God. Jesus places us under the protection of God’s Name so that we may share in the joy of God’s eternal kingdom.

We hear in Acts of the Apostles that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians. And in the familiar words of the hymn, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” It is up to each of us to claim the name we have been given, the name of the Sons and the Daughters of God, the name Christian. It is up to us to live up that name and all that it challenges us to and all that it promises.

Today, the Sunday after the Ascension of the Lord, but before the Feast of Pentecost is a unique day in the history of the Christian Community. What the community experienced on this day was that they were on their own. Jesus had left them to return to the Father, but the promised Holy Spirit had not yet arrived. They spent their time waiting and praying. It was the first time, as Christians, that they had the experience of Jesus being apparently far away and having no clear direction about what to do next. In the meantime all they could do was wait – and ponder this Name, this new identity, that would be theirs forever – the identity of a Christian.

So, what is in that name? Well, in the name of Jesus, the Son of God, we have been claimed for eternity. In the name of Jesus, we were baptized as members of the family of God. In the name of Jesus, bread and wine will become His Body and His Blood. In the name of Jesus we will be blessed at the end of Mass. In the name of Jesus, the sick are healed, the blind can see, the deaf can hear, demons are driven out, the dead are raised. In the name of Jesus, we can pray for what we need with a confidence that what we ask for in His Holy Name will be granted. In the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we were welcomed into this community of faith and it is in this same name that we will be commended to the joy of Heaven when our final day comes.

“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.” Have we allowed ourselves to be kept in God’s Name? Have we embraced it ? Do we live it? Indeed we pray with the whole church in the words of the Divine Praised, “Blessed be God, blessed be His Holy Name.”

May God give you peace.

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