What's In a Name?
If you cast your mind back to your high school days, you can most likely remember reading Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet “at least once in English class. In this play, Juliet, bemoaning her separation from Romeo due to family fighting, cries:
“What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)
Since it is Romeo’s last name that is keeping them apart, she insists that his name is essentially meaningless, and that if he could only change it to anything else then all their problems would be solved. After all, if we called a rose a pumpernickel, for example, or a heffalump, wouldn’t it still remain the same thing, i.e. just as beautiful, just as fragrant, just the same? In other words, can’t the name of a thing be divorced from the thing itself?
It is true that changing the name of a rose to something else would not also change the properties of the object itself, in this case a rose, but the name change would certainly add a layer of confusion and, ultimately, untruth. A name is more than just a placeholder, something that can be changed on a whim. A name is also a signifier, conveying meaning. It tells the truth, so to speak, about the thing it is labeling.
In fact, the word “rose” comes from the Latin word “rosa,” which refers to the woody, perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa. This tells us that roses are part of a group of species that are closely related through common descent. So, we know that roses produce flowers, not fruits, and we should be careful about trying to eat them. We also know that, given normal conditions, they will grow and bloom for many years. A name tells us truths about what it labels.
Why is this important?
Because the month of January is dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus. Just like the name “rose” tells us truths about what a rose is and does, so, too, Jesus’ name tells us about who he is and what he does.
The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Yeshua,” which puts together two words: “Ya” for “Yahweh” and “yasha,” meaning “rescue, save or deliver.” The name of Jesus, then, tells us not only who he is (Yahweh the Lord) but also his mission, what he does (saves us by atoning for our sins and delivers us back into relationship with God). His person and his mission are both revealed in his name.
And Jesus’ essence and mission continue in the Church today. Saint John Paul II wrote that “When the Church celebrates the great sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, Christ bestows on each and every member of the Church not only himself but himself in the mystery of redemption and justification.” He gives the gift of “his person and of his action” in the Eucharist to each of us, every time we receive him.
If Jesus is the Word of God, the one Word for all time, and we, Jesus’ followers, are called to be little words of his, then perhaps we should spend some time thinking about our own names, especially the name given at our baptism. How do our names reveal who we are created to be and how we will participate in Jesus' mission? Praying the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus is another good way to reflect on the name of Jesus during this month.
Give us, O Lord, as much a lasting awe as a lasting love of your Holy Name, for you, who live and are King for ever and ever, never fail to govern those whom you have solidly established in your love. Amen.
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