What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
Pretty good, huh? That’s the one piece of literature I was asked to memorize in high school and the girl’s still got it! Most of us recognize this piece as part of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is lamenting that she cannot be with her true love because his name happens to be that of a family her father hates.
A name is a powerful thing. A name can separate two lovers, prevent a person from getting a job, give a person access to family wealth and prestige.
When a parent chooses a name for their child, they choose it with care. Some of you have wonderful names, loaded with meaning. Blake and Corin Hunter were named after literary figures-William Blake and the character Corin from Chronicles of Narnia. Chuck and Leith’s names were chosen because they were family names. Janice was supposed to be named Elaine, but her mother took one look at her and knew she was a Janice. My sister and my names were carefully chosen from a baby book with the sole criteria that they could not be reduced to stupid or embarrassing nicknames.
Do me a favor. Take a moment and tell the person next to you how you got your name. If you’re in the Witness Protection Program and some government agent gave you your new name, just invent a story. . .
Today we celebrate Holy Name day, the day when Mary obeyed the Angel Gabriel and named her son Jesus. No one names anyone in the bible by accident, so we can learn a lot about a person by what he is named. The word for Jesus can also be translated as Joshua. If you were here Christmas morning, you heard Chuck talk about the connection between Jesus and the Old Testament figure of Joshua. After the Israelites were liberated from the Pharaoh through Moses’ intervention, they wandered around the desert for forty years. Joshua, who was a generation younger than Moses, ended up leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan. So, when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary to name the baby Jesus, which literally means God Saves, you start to have a clue that big things are in store for this baby.
The significance of names in the Bible did not begin with Jesus. Adam was called on to name every animal and when Adam first sees his wife, he spontaneously names her in awe and wonder. From that time on, the names people choose for their children, or even for themselves, in the Bible are careful, rich expressions of their circumstances. For example, barren women in the Bible who end up becoming pregnant, often name their children in thanksgiving to God. Hannah names her son Samuel, which means “name of God”, because she had prayed for his conception.
With this legacy behind us, we have the privilege of naming each other and using each other’s names.
With that privilege comes power. One of the most powerful ways you can demean a person, remove his humanity, is to alter or remove his name. This begins in the playground, when kids will taunt one another with unpleasant variations of each other’s names.
As adults we can do this insidiously. I have an acquaintance who has some co workers who drive her crazy. Instead of referring to them by name, she calls them “that black accountant” or “that Mexican girl in human resources”. She manages to both negate their identity and demean their entire race in one fell swoop with just a handful of careless words.
Unnaming’s most terrible manifestation comes when people’s names are removed altogether, such as in concentration camps during world war II, when people’s names were replaced by a number. Dehumanizing prisoners in this way, enabled the guards to treat them as people who were far less than fully human, worse even than a normal person would treat an animal
Names are precious. They are a symbol of all we are and who we hope to become. Just as Adam carefully chose the first names, and God chose Jesus’ name, we are called to be careful with the names of those around us, to use them tenderly, with respect.
How you speak a person’s name reveals so much about how much you value the person to whom you are speaking. Listen to these differences:
Hello Chuck! (Say once with enthusiasm, once with boredom, once with disdain, etc.)
Depending on how I used his name, Chuck would immediately know whether I valued him as a person that particular day.
We hold this power of naming and unnaming, not only over others, but also over ourself. When I first moved to town, two thirteen year old girls came to my door selling magazines for a school fundraiser. As I filled out the paperwork the girls started to bicker with each other, saying things like, “You are so stupid. No you’re stupid!” They stared at me blankly as I preached to them about the importance of self respect and using positive language. One of them said to me, “Oh, no, you don’t understand. It’s okay. We’re best friends!”
What these girls didn’t realize is that we become what we name ourselves. If we allow others to call us stupid, we begin to call ourselves stupid. If we begin to call ourselves stupid, then eventually we won’t see much need to respect ourselves and will begin limiting our opportunities or even putting ourselves in danger.
In contrast, if we call ourselves nice names, we’ll eventually live into them. Working at Emmanuel has been disorienting for me, because I have never in my life been called the nice things that I have been since I’ve moved here. Chuck in particular has a remarkable gift of naming. If you’ve spent five minutes with him, all of a sudden you feel like you are a fabulous person who was solely responsible for hanging the moon. My poor sister has the exhausting job of reminding me that I’m the same-old-Sarah and to not get too big of a head. Despite her best efforts, though, I actually find myself being nicer, doing better, because you all treat me like that is who I am.
When you think of yourselves, what names to do use? Despite all the lofty events of the last few weeks, I do not think of myself as Sarah-the-Priest nearly as often as I think of myself as “Sarah-who-has-gained-five-pounds-since-she-moved-here.”
Take another moment, this time silently, to think of the names that you use for yourself.
Hopefully, many of those names are positive, but if they aren’t I want to offer you hope.
First, remember that the maker of the universe created you. He calls you by name and sees who you truly are. When the Father speaks your name, he speaks it with the greatest tenderness and affection.
Jesus, whose name we celebrate today, also has some names for you. Remember, this is the same Jesus who called the impulsive, flailing Simon, Peter, which means Rock. He not only called Simon by name, but he added a new name full of hope and pride.
If your head is full of names that are demeaning, think for a moment about Jesus’ primary names for you: Friend, brother, and sister. Jesus, who is all of God, sees you as a partner. He knows who you are now and he sees who you can become. He believes in your potential and is eager for you to believe in yourself.
And if your name is not enough for you to believe in, and it probably shouldn’t be, remember that you can cling to the name of the Lord and the name of Jesus-for by revealing these names to us, God declares his desire for intimacy with us and his determination to be in relationship with us forever.