Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter Rostron, OHC
Holy Name - Friday, January 1, 2016
Happy new year by the civic calendar. Welcome to 2016. Today’s feast is about naming. Biblically, naming is all about the theology of identity, consecration, and vocation. Holy Name, always eight days after Christmas as was the length of time between Jesus’ birth and the event of his circumcision and naming, is the Jewish ritual initiation into the covenant by a physical sign and the giving of a familial or religious name. The name Jesus means "Yahweh will save". It was given by the angel Gabriel to Mary and Joseph. This feast occurs within a series of holy days of the Lord’s life which note and celebrate the Christ come among us as human and revealed to the world as Messiah – Christmas, Holy Name, the Baptism of the Lord, Epiphany, and the Presentation. Each event and the Church’s liturgy thereof highlights an aspect of the life of Christ presented in the Gospels which gives us a glimpse into the mystery of the incarnation and its explosion into the world. Today, as Jesus receives his name which is promise and mission, so we remember that we are recipients as well and receive our names – our identities and vocations anew.
Scripture is loaded with meaning-names and name-changes. God’s name, biblical shorthand for God’s personality and character, is a frequent means of referring to God. The scriptural importance of names and naming is noted in the fact that the word “name” occurs 944 times. With biblical characters, often it is the changing of a name that provides a before and after contrast, highlighting the significance of the character’s identity. A turning point of self-understanding or a conversion within one person and reverberating out to the community can change an Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Cephas to Peter, Saul to Paul. Names matter. The new name sets a new agenda. Although more frequent in ages past, from time to time a monk of our Order will take a name at the first profession of the monastic vow that connotes a new identity - the past is gone, a fresh identification is taken on.
In this culture we have largely lost the connection between name and identity. A new baby's name is just as likely to come from a book of baby names as from some family history with the name. Or sometimes the ego goes wild in the form of naming. Former boxer George Foreman, now famous for his electric grill, has 12 children: five sons and seven daughters. His five sons are George Jr., George III ("Monk"), George IV ("Big Wheel"), George V ("Red"), and George VI ("Little Joey"). Guess who this family is about!
Rather than receiving a name identity, the empire is organized around the sorry task of categorizing - defining status, value, and worth based on whatever external criteria are deemed most important – appearance, money, position, talent, intelligence, or the lack thereof. Identity and value are not given by God but earned or inherited. This kind of judgment shows up as labelling or “name-calling”. To call someone a name that is not their name is to attempt to impose an alternate identity. Whenever I fall into sin and label someone and thus de-name them, I have decided to dehumanize and embrace the lie that I have a right to treat someone as subservient to me - less than human. And even if I am getting better at biting my tongue when tempted to speak my labels, I think name-denying things about other people – “wrong, useless, stupid, lazy, stubborn, forgetful, failure.” When repeated often enough, the other person becomes my label so that I am unable to see anything of him or her but my label. Then I have succeeded at mentally stripping him or her of dignity as a person for me.
A label, a category, or a judgment is the opposite of a name. It is the profaning of a person's name, and therefore their gifted identity. The culture is very good at this and to the extent that we swim in it we get polluted by this prevailing attitude. Labelling and name-calling is a sport among many politicians, commentators, and others who engage in the perpetual struggle of "us-versus-them". The chatter of much news coverage does not hesitate to de-name and de-humanize in the service of victory for my side. We are going to hear much de-humanizing speech in this election year of 2016.
But there is good news. The good news is that we do not have to live in the illusory and demeaning world of labels, we can live as named people. We are called to live as the people of God, the Church. God is in the naming business so the Church is in the naming business. That is how God has chosen to bestow honor to each and every one no matter the circumstances or externals of life. We as the Church are at our best when we remember that we each have names and then treat one another accordingly. And because we are in the naming business on God’s behalf, we as Christ’s body resist every force, structure, act, movement, ideology and methodology that engages in de-naming and dehumanizing anyone. The same love that compels us to reach out toward the marginalized and oppressed – the de-named in whatever their distressing disguise – also compels us to refute the evil of de-naming within ourselves and in those around us. It is easy to rationalize our labels, join the crowd, demonize the other, ally ourselves with those who agree with us and hide behind the excuse that everybody is doing it. Sadly, there are some within the Church who dirty the holy name of Jesus by their insults of their brothers and sisters. As a young teenager said at youth group once, “People who hate other people are terrible, I hate them.”
Your name and my name are sacramental and not available for abuse. In the liturgies for holy baptism, confirmation, holy matrimony, ordination, and prayers for healing we call our brothers and sisters by their God-given names in order to remember and make explicit the presence and worth of the persons before us, persons who are receiving God’s grace in those moments. These acts actualize the reality that the Church is in the naming business and therefore against the labelling business. The Church engages the mission of God of seeing people, welcoming people, engaging and forming people – all people - not creating or reinforcing labels that foment enmity, suspicion, fear, mistrust, or walls that preserve the us and them of the world. To know and call someone by their name is to acknowledge their worth and value and therefore to take a stand for connection and community and against the demeaning and divisive forces of this world.
Living as named people is not a utopian vision of problem-free ease. Dialogue and disagreement are normal and natural aspects of community life within the body. Living with each other as named people does not mean we will agree with each other or even like each other all the time. We are not called to passive relativism that minimizes our own ideas and feelings for the sake of some surface level mutual accommodation and tolerance. Living with names is the intentional, sometimes difficult work of recognizing that as we all desire to grow together, move forward together, we each must bring our unique name and voice and gifts to that journey. When all are offering themselves for the good of the body, life happens and we see each other as the persons we are. Yet temptation will raise its head so we must remember that within the body nobody gets to de-name or hijack the mission, nobody gets to claim power or status over another as a way to demean someone else’s presence and voice.
At the dawn of a new year, let us resolve that in our various contexts – families, churches, workplaces – that we will resist the path of collective tribalism and remember and see and relate to one another as people named and called and valued by God. Amen.