What's In a Name?
In today?s Gospel reading, for the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ (Matthew 1:1-25), it begins with a somewhat tedious list of names, recounting the genealogy of Christ. There are forty names listed and to make it more cumbersome, we repeat the majority of the names twice along with the phrase, ?the father of?. For example, it reads, ?Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob? (v.2). In the original Greek, it reads, ?Αβρααμ εγεννησεν τον Ισαακ, Ισαακ δε εγεννησεν τον Ιακωβ.? So, the more literal translation would be, ?Isaac begat Jacob.? Why all of these names? Why all this repetition? Why not move directly to verses 18-25 regarding Joseph and Mary and the eminent birth of Jesus?
We need to remember that 2,000 years ago, there were no printed bibles. Only a few manuscripts existed and people only heard them read during the Divine Liturgy. From a practical perspective, it made sense to repeat names and phrases to help the faithful memorize and learn the story. More importantly, from a spiritual/theological perspective, the repetition of names had great meaning and it still does for us today. What?s in a name? A name, my name, your name, everyone?s name, is not just a word. It is also a sign and a symbol, a representation of who we are. It sums up the totality of our being, our personhood, our entirely unique combination of characteristics and experiences.
In the ancient world, to say, ?Ισαακ δε εγεννησεν τον Ιακωβ? or ?Isaac begat Jacob? was the same as saying, ?Jacob the son of Isaac?. It placed that person in a lineage and in a specific point in history. Notice that in the bible no one has a last name. That would come centuries later, when one?s father?s first name became his/her last name. The remnant of this tradition is preserved in many current last names like ?Peterson?, which meant of course ?the son of Peter.? Modern Greek names demonstrate this tradition in that many of them are cast in the possessive case, like ?Papandreou? as opposed to ?Papandreas.?
However, a name has more meaning than just signifying our historical existence. Our name connects to the very core of our being and thus has existential or ultimate meaning. Our name is like our fingerprint, it?s utterly unique and unrepeatable. Almost from the day of our birth, our parents called us by our name. Those who gave birth to us, also gave us a name that meant something to them. And then, sweetly and lovingly, they repeated that name over and over again to us. Even before we were conscious of our name, we were conscious of our parents? gentle voice, loving gaze and warm embrace. The sound of their voice, especially saying our name, is one we will never forget. Our parents? voice and words helped to call our being and personality into existence.
In the biological and verbal begetting of their children, parents become co-creators with God. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God creates heaven and earth. He then creates light by saying, ?Let there be light? (v.3). Later, He calls ?the light Day; the darkness He called Night? (v.5). Later, God calls ?the dry land Earth? and ?the waters He calls Seas.? We are familiar with the rest of the creation story. The important point is that through God?s spoken word, He creates all that exists. As well, through His spoken word, through His voice, God names the various elements of creation. In addition, God creates the first man and woman and God gives this first man, Adam, the privilege to name all of the animals in the creation.
The importance of our name is underlined in our daily experience. When someone uses our name while talking to us, it gives more meaning and power to their words. It delights our soul to hear our name, George, Dimitri, Christina, Panayiota, etc., and we feel more connected to the other person. It is way better to hear our name rather than to hear ?hey you? or ?dude?. Addressing the other person by name is one of the greatest compliments you can pay. It shows that you care and respect that person.
The other aspect of our name is what does it literally mean or what does it mean to the people who named you? Sometimes names are given by parents because they like how it sounds or it?s a popular name. Some parents wish to be counter-cultural and give their child a very unique name. Sometimes, names are given to show honor and respect for another person like a grandparent or another beloved relative. In our Orthodox Christian tradition, when someone is baptized they are given a saint?s name who will become their patron, praying and interceding for them. That saint also becomes a model and example of someone who followed Christ in order for us to learn from and imitate. In today?s Gospel, the meaning of names is very significant. Abraham?s name means ?the father of a multitude? showing that from him many nations would follow. Isaac?s name means, ?to laugh? or ?he who laughs? because when God appeared to his mother Sarah, who was well beyond childbearing age, to tell her she would give birth, she laughed at God. Jacob?s name means ?supplants or held by the heel? because he stole his brother, Esau?s inheritance. David?s name means ?beloved?.
Most important of all is the name Jesus. The angel tells Joseph to call the child about to be born of Mary, ?Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins? (v.21). The name Jesus literally means ?He who saves.? This is why we call Jesus, ?our Savior.? Matthew the Evangelist notes that this is a fulfillment of prophecy and quotes Isaiah 7:14 ?Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.? Because the Greek speaking people may not have known the Hebrew, Matthew explains that the name Immanuel means ?God with us? (v.23). So, not only is Jesus our Savior, He is also God, ?conceived of the Holy Spirit? (v.20), who lives among us and in us.
The Prophet Isaiah said, ?God called me before I was born, from my mother?s womb He pronounced my name? (Is.49:1). When Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus had previously cast seven demons from, encounters Jesus after His Resurrection, she does not recognize Him (John 20:11-15). However, when Jesus says her name, ?Mary? (v.16), she immediately recognizes Jesus and calls Him ?Rabboni? (or teacher).
Ask yourself, what does your name literally mean? Does that have some connection to who you are? Even if our name does not have a definite meaning or its literal meaning does not speak to us, our name does signify who we are in the space and time of history. More importantly, our name expresses the very core of our essence or being. Back in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve were hiding from God because they was ashamed of their transgression, ?they heard the voice of the Lord God? (v.8) and God called, ?Adam, where are you?? (v.9). We should ask ourselves, ?Are we ashamed and hiding from God right now?? God is calling each one of us by name saying, ?Where are you?? In other words, ?Where are you in relation to Me, your Savior, the One who lives with you and in you?? Through the bustle of life, through the busyness of the holidays, do we hear God?s voice and even if we did hear it, would we recognize it? Are we so disconnected from ourselves, that we don?t even recognize the name that God calls us by, the one name that connects to the truth of who we, the name that is beneath all the layers of abuse, pretention, pride, envy, resentment and bitterness? As we approach the Feast of our Lord?s birth, may we open our ears and listen, may we open our hearts and forgive, may we open our minds and believe and trust Him, so that we may become aware of His indwelling presence, He that is closer to us than we ourselves are. Thus, let us rejoice because Jesus is born, the One who saves us from our sins.