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Call me by name.

WHEN I WAS in graduate school years ago, my wife put me in her debt by holding down the more lucrative job while I stayed home in our modest student-housing apartment and took care of our younger son while studying. The other day I found this entry in my diary from that period.

"For a year and a half I've been home with him. It was peaceful when, as a baby, he was moderately mute. I could get my work done during the day. Then he came to know who we were by the labels `papa' and `mama.' At first he would only repeat them, like a parrot, pleasing us to no end. Then he understood them referentially. When we'd ask `Where's Mama?' in an excessively high voice and with big, rubbery facial expressions, he would turn and look for her in the room.

"But then one day he learned the use of the word not as a reference, but as a name. When he called it out, the word was supposed to have an effect; the person was supposed to respond in some way. Now every thought, every observation, every discovery, every new corner explored, every book opened, every toy picked up begins with `Papa, Papa, Papa.' He says my name a thousand times a day.

"Today I was so exasperated that the thought comically entered my head, `I wish he'd never learned my name!' and immediately I was with God at the burning bush. `Shall I trust this fellow Moses with my name? I'll never hear the end of it! They will have a claim on me.'" As my son has a claim on me.

The encounter between God and Moses of which I was reminded at that moment took place after Moses had fled Egypt and made his mid-career change in professions from prince to shepherd. One day he brought his father-in-law's flock to Horeb, the mountain of the Lord, and there turned aside to see a bush that blazed but was not consumed.

God proposed to him that he go tell Pharaoh to release his entire slave workforce and then tell the Israelites to follow the God of their ancestors out of slavery. "But Moses said to God, `If I come to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your ancestors has sent me to you," and they ask me, "What is his name?" what shall I say to them?'" (Exod. 3:13)

Maybe Moses' concern is simply whether the Israelites will remember who the God of Abraham and Sarah is, but I tend to think it's a bigger issue than that. Names personalize. Names individuate. An exchange of names gives each party something of a hold on the other. If we don't know the name of the clerk behind the counter, then we must stammer, "Sir? ... Excuse me.... Pardon me.... Madam?"

But if we could say "John!" or "Mary!" then we can command that person's attention. If we knew God's name, we would be able to pray, praise, lament, glorify, petition, supplicate, entreat, intercede, and pester for justice. This is what is at stake for God. It would be all the easier to remain hidden behind the abstract title "God of our ancestors" and not disclose a name to Moses. A challenge was presented to God: "How much better do I want them to know me? They might say my name a thousand times a day." Nevertheless, God relents, and to the name by which Israel had known him thus far (Elohim) he adds a new name (Yahweh) for the people of Israel to learn, brought down the mountain by Moses.

LEARNING GOD'S NAME COULD BE CONSIDERED A LITURGICAL journey, one not so dissimilar to the linguistic journey my son took, We first know the name of God as a sound. Along with all sorts of other words, we learn to say "G-o-d." But if we're attentive, it soon becomes evident that when people say "God" or "God!" or even "God?" they are doing more than exhaling in a pattern. This is a word, and words have meaning, and when words have meaning they refer to something. Our earliest faith development, as children, may consist of a parent or a priest or a catechist saying "God" to us with a high-pitched voice and big, rubbery facial expressions, hoping we get the picture and realize that the word refers to someone. If we finally do realize this, we might look around to see where in the world God is to be found.

But this should not satisfy us. This is the beginning, not the end, of the liturgical journey. In order to celebrate liturgy, one must come to understand that words about God can next become words to God. A word that refers to God can, with a twist of faith, be used as a name. Liturgy means more than speaking about God; it means speaking of God; even more, it means speaking with God. A thousand times a day, with every thought, every delight and every encounter, every failure and every success, every new task accomplished and every duty failed, we say, "Our Father in heaven."

Knowing names gives people a hold on each other, and it should become evident that this must apply to both directions. After all, if two people are going to converse with each other, such as is done in prayer, then each should have the other's name. So besides God risking the gift of his name to Israel, we must risk the gift of our name to God. This makes God vulnerable. Will we give our names?

In the early church there were two phases to the catechumenate that led up to Easter Baptism. In the first phase, the catechumens were called "auditors" because they came to listen to the Word of God and were dismissed after the homily. This phase lasted about three years, during which time the catechumen soaked up scripture and learned how to live a Christian life.

The second phase lasted only 40 days (the origin of Lent), and the catechumen was called an "elect" because he or she was enrolled for Baptism that year. At a rite called the enrollment, the bishop asked who among the catechumens would give their names to be baptized this year--and with his own hand wrote their names on the church rolls (literally en-rolled them). To "give your name" therefore became a technical term for the transition to the final phase of preparation for Baptism. Saint Ambrose says that once athletes have "given their name" for a race, they must train all the harder. "You too have given in your name for Christ's contest; you have entered for an event, and its prize is a crown. Practice, train, anoint yourself with the oil of gladness."

Be careful who has your name. God should be careful now that we have his personal name, and we should be careful now that we have given our name at Baptism. Because after the exchange of names, the really difficult and fun part of life begins. It would be a little odd if, after the wedding, after the cake had been cut and the dances danced, the bride and groom fell into their chairs, looked at each other, and said, "Well, that was fun, wasn't it? I enjoyed that! Can I call you later? "Call me?" the other would reply, "I'm going to move in with you!"

And, likewise, it would be odd if after the Easter Vigil, after the candle wax had been scraped off the floor and the incense smoke had cleared, Christians fell into their pews with the intention of calling God later. "Call me? If you'll have me, I'm moving in!" In Baptism we have given our name to God, and thereafter grace will pester us for the rest of our life until the church floor is littered with our bandages and sins and prejudices and miseries and jealousies and grudges. We will slough off our tomb apparel for the garment of immortality.

The ancestral God gave Moses a more personal name, the name of a deity who,intended to come from distant celestial heights to the mud pits of Egypt, lead a clan of slaves through the wilderness, and overshadow their tent of meeting in the evening. The giving of a name is self-disclosure and an intimate gift. The divine intimacy of trinitarian life is communicated between three persons, so three names: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Son has forever known the name of the Father. And when the Holy Spirit of God overshadowed Mary, and the eternally begotten Son of God became human, and his friends asked him how to pray, he told them they too could say "Our Father in heaven."

This is the root of all our liturgical transactions. We do not conjure God; God cannot be bewitched, materialized, or enchanted. We have no more power to command God by pronouncing his name than my son has power over me--and yet we have exactly this much power! The reason for our having God's name is not so we remember who the Father of Jesus is but for us to use the name liturgically. This God has done some memorable things, but the most wonderful is this exchange of names whereby we can call on God, and God can call on us.

By DAVID W. FAGERBERG, associate professor of religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota and author of The Size of Chesterton's Catholicism (University of Notre Dame Press, 1998).
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Title Annotation:importance of names in liturgy
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Sep 1, 1999
Previous Article:Am I OK the way I am?
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