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What's in a name? When we accept the name "Christian," we enter into an unending covenant--to love one another and be loved in return. (testaments).

I RODE MY BIKE to the top of the hill and looked down at the town spread out below me. I was 12 and facing the most serious decision of my young life. This hill was the place where I did all of my important thinking. Seeing the whole town in front of me gave me a sense of perspective and, at the same time, a strange degree of detachment.

There was my parents' house, a mere dash visible mostly because we lived on the last street before the railroad tracks. More prominent was the avenue where the four church steeples rose in a row. Between the tracks and the avenue lay the rest of the town, sleepy and silent from my elevated position far above the valley. Between my house and the churches was also the matter that absorbed me on this particular day. I was hoping that, today, at this spot, I would be able to do some high-level discernment.

I was about to be confirmed, and I had to choose a name under which

I would be known as a soldier of Christ.

Taking on a new name was significant and exciting. My original name had been chosen by my parents as a special tribute to my mother's sister. I had been baptized with that name and known by it all my life. I liked my given name. But this was different; this was a chance to choose my own name, a name that would call out of me who and what I was to become. Sister had told us in school to think of someone who was a hero for us, someone we wanted to grow up to imitate.

I had wanted to take the name Victoria. It was the name of a heroine in a soap opera I watched regularly on TV. She was beautiful and she was virtuous and therefore persecuted by the dangerous man who loved her to obsession. To my young way of seeing things, that made her practically a saint. It also made her very much like some of the real-life women I knew in my small town. To be a woman in those days carried with it the stereotype of virtue and victimhood. In my limited experience, I thought of that as a noble destiny.

Fortunately for me, at school Sister discouraged my choice. "Victoria is not a saint's name," she informed me. Oh. So back to the drawing board. After giving it another long session of discernment, I rode my bike back down the hill. At school tomorrow I would propose the name Laura. And Sister would accept: "A derivative of Saint Lawrence the martyr!"

Only I secretly carried into my encounter with the bishop the knowledge that my choice had nothing to do with Saint Lawrence. I had recently seen Doctor Zhivago and was full of wondrous admiration for Omar Sharif's mistress. Julie Christie, pray for us!

LOOKING BACK DECADES LATER, I WISH I MIGHT HAVE HAD A little more guidance. In our culture, too often the process of naming is co-opted by tradition (Henry Swarinski IV) or fashion (Heather! Jennifer! Brittany!) Although I would be rich today if I had a nickel for every Catholic I knew named Mary or Joe over the years, one can't deny that they are eminently more suitable as patron saints than Yuri Zhivago's lover.

In most ancient cultures, the business of naming was both a matter of considerable gravity as well as a fluid process. A name wasn't simply a decorative "handle" or a way for your friends to get your attention; it told something significant about you. One named a child with expectations of who the child might be. One also moved through life with the understanding that those expectations could change, and a new name might become more fitting.

Adam, for example, is a pun on the word for earth, because he was formed from the clay of the ground. Eve derives from the word for life and therefore is "the mother of all the living," as Genesis tells us. Isaac means "laughter," reminding us that his elderly mother Sarah laughed when she heard she was to conceive in her old age.

When Rachel, Jacob's beloved but long-suffering wife, gave birth to her second child on her deathbed, she named him Ben-oni, or "son of sorrow." But Jacob wisely called his son Benjamin instead, a name that means "son of the south." The tribe of Benjamin would eventually inhabit the land to the south.

Any biblical name ending in -el was a reference to God--Michael, Ishmael, Raphael, Ezekiel, Emmanuel. And so we are not surprised when Jacob wrestles till dawn with an angel and is renamed Israel, a name that means "let God rule." As a nation emerging from such a patriarch, Israel would remain true to that name, ever struggling in the divine embrace, always attempting to break free and go its own way.

And just as Israel took on its character from the father of its famous 12 tribes, so too Christians are meant to draw their identity from the one whose name they bear. How would you say we are we doing, so far? To be honest, there are times when I think we would do well to stick to the names of superficial celebrities. Sometimes our aspirations don't seem to reach much further than that.

In the first generation, of course, Christians didn't use the name of Christ as a badge of identification. They wouldn't dare to be so bold! They called themselves the "followers of the Way," as recorded throughout the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus had called himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The early church sought to remain true to his Way.

Yet within the first century, there is evidence that the name Christian was imposed on the community from the outside. The Romans used it disparagingly in their documents to refer to these followers of "Chrestus," which is how the Hebrew word messiah gets translated into Latin. The word Christian is invented, so to speak, as the name for a criminal charge.

At the end of the first century, the First Letter of Peter uses the term: "But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name" (1 Peter 4:16). By the second century, Saint Ignatius of Antioch uses the name in speaking of his impending martyrdom, hoping not only to be accused as a Christian but also to be found to be one! As happens so often in history, an outsider's slur becomes adopted as an insider's badge of honor.

NAMING ALSO BECOMES A FORM OF COMMITMENT. IN JOHN'S gospel, when Jesus first walks by, John the Baptist shouts, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" This is a reference to the unblemished lamb eaten to commemorate the night when the angel of death passed over God's people in Egypt before the great exodus. Jesus would be the liberator who would take death's sting away for those who partook of his life.

But though John names Jesus grandly with this title, the disciples who witness this scene call Jesus simply Rabbi, a name meaning "teacher." They are not quite ready to surrender more to him than to become his students. Yet after they accept his invitation to "come and see" where he stays, one day is enough to convince them to commit further. "We have found the Messiah!" Andrew proclaims the next day to his brother Peter.

Then we see how reciprocal this business of naming becomes. Having upgraded their name for Jesus, the disciples are in for a surprise when Jesus returns the gesture. When Peter comes to meet Jesus, one glance is enough for Jesus to take the measure of the man: "You are Simon, the son of John; you will be called Cephas," which means "Peter" or "rock." The closer we get to naming Jesus more accurately, the closer we get to understanding who we truly are as well.

The seriousness of this reciprocal power of naming can be overwhelming. During the years when I worked in preparing adults for the Rites of Christian Initiation, I saw with wonder how soberly individuals would labor over choosing their new name in Christ. Whether they were 18 or near 80, the idea that they had this singular opportunity to choose a new identity and start again was so hopeful.

One man in particular, who came to Baptism in midlife, took on the task with great deliberation. He had never missed one RICA session and was actively involved in every discussion as an eager learner. After two failed marriages and alienation from his adult children, he seemed especially desperate to become someone new. He chose the name Michael because he saw the archangel as an avenging spirit, able to discern right from wrong clearly and prepared to stop the wicked in their tracks with a plunging sword of righteousness. Although I appreciated his motivation for the choice, I wondered a little about his desire to paint his moral world in such unambiguous strokes.

AFTER EASTER, OUR NEW BROTHER IN CHRIST MOVED TO ANOTHER city, and from there he mailed me a packet of papers. I opened the envelope and was horrified. Before me was evidence that the man we had just baptized and received into the church was a card-carrying white supremacist. Here were photocopied letters he had been mailing to various magazines for years, extolling a vitriolic blend of racism, religious intolerance, and generic fanaticism.

The force of such hatred, such a twisted worldview, stunned me. I was also confounded as to how all this turmoil was able to mask itself in the appearance of the man who sat with us, Sunday after Sunday, preparing to receive the sacraments of the church. How could he accept the teachings of the church and harbor this malevolence? How could he accept Jesus as his Lord and still believe these awful things?

Perplexed and frightened for him, I wrote a terse reply. I reminded him that he now bore the name of Christ, the light of the world. In that name, he had pledged to banish moral and spiritual darkness and to embrace the love and peace that brought salvation to the whole world. And I promised to pray for him.

Months passed. And then I received one final letter. In it, he told me that he had read yet another article that moved his heart to toxic levels of rage and intolerance, and in keeping with his long custom, he sat down at once to reply with the usual ferocious rhetoric. But the pen wouldn't write. It touched down on the paper and would not move. And try though he might, not one word of the hate in his heart came forth. "It's over," he admitted. "I can't live in the light and claim this darkness anymore." His youngest son then came over and helped him burn a lifetime accumulation of hate literature.

Was this a total and permanent conversion? Did Saint Michael, champion of moral principles, fix that pen to the paper with his spear as he had been summoned to do by the one who deliberately sought his patronage? Time will tell.

God gives us this powerful freedom to surrender our hearts--and to snatch them back again. We are named, we name ourselves, and we can embrace new names all along the journey. Simon could be Peter, could be a rock foundation of the church's faith. He could also surrender to fear and deny his Lord and run away.

You and I have taken the name of Christian. But as Saint Ignatius says, would that the name not only accuse us, but find us true!

ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to Catholicism (ACTA Publications) and collaborator on the homily service, "Prepare the Word," available from TrueQuest Communications.
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Title Annotation:narrative
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Words:1989
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