Francis X. Weiser Inaugural Lecture:

Michael Foley's "What's In a Name"


Dr. Michael Foley speaking on God's Holy Name in the lower church of Holy Trinity


In response to the Holy Father's call for a new evangelization, the Holy Name Society at Holy Trinity (German) Church inaugurated a lecture series on Sunday, October 1, 2000. Forty-six parishioners filed into the church's basement chapel to hear the first of several presentations (four per year) designed to leverage the intellectual wealth of our Holy Mother Church while complementing the parish's thriving spiritual life.

Named after the parish's twenty-third pastor, Fr. Frances X. Weiser, S.J., who was a first-rate scholar and a lover of the Church's liturgical customs and traditions, the series began with a lecture by Michael P. Foley, Ph.D, a part-time faculty member of the Boston College Philosophy Department and parishioner of Holy Trinity. Dr. Foley's topic, What's In a Name, Why Catholics Should Revere God's Holy Name, was chosen in light of the mission of the Holy Name Society to promote respect and love for God's Holy Name. Deemed by all to be a "colossal success," the lecture began with Dr. Foley expressing his gratitude for a signed copy of one of Father Weiser's books which was unexpectedly and generously given to him by Mrs. Lillian Reiss, a member of the German community at Holy Trinity who remembers the former pastor's kindness and wisdom. During his talk (the full text of which is printed below), Dr. Foley discussed the neglected yet fascinating theology of naming in the Bible, the significance of the names Yahweh and Jesus, and the reasons behind the Catholic veneration of Christ's holy name. The lecture ended with a brief question and answer period, followed by informal discussion. Dr. Foley was afterwards presented with a warm and appropriate gift from Holy Name President Edgar Perry.



What's In a Name: Why Catholics Should Revere

God's Holy Name

By Michael P. Foley

Inaugural Lecture of the Francis X. Weiser Lecture Series

of the Holy Name Society at

Holy Trinity German Church, Boston,

Sunday, October 1, 2000


Thank you. It is an honor to give this inaugural lecture for the Holy Name Society. New life was breathed into this organization less than a year ago, and yet it has already become indispensable in a parish life with all of the work it is doing. And it is also an honor to speak in a series named after Francis Weiser, not simply because he once graced these very halls, but because he is a true role model. Father Weiser's work was an attempt to faithfully retrieve the great liturgical tradition of the Roman rite for the humble purpose of living out, of incarnating, the sacred mysteries every day of the year. That is why this able scholar wrote for families who wanted to know how to reflect the beauty and the meaning of the liturgical year in their hearts and homes - in other words, how to become holy through holy observance. I believe that this is also the goal of the Holy Name Society, as well as of the Latin Mass community here at Holy Trinity, and of the so-called Latin Mass Movement as a whole.

And so I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you, but I hope you do not mind if I use it to raise a somewhat pointed question about this society's apostolate. To put the matter rather impiously, Why do you venerate a name? Why have a devotion to a number of syllables, to a set of sounds, rather than to the person himself? Certainly the name of the Lord is praised in the Bible, in the writings of the Church Fathers and of the saints, and in the liturgy, but this only begs the question. Why is something as seemingly superficial as a name reckoned to have such power and to command such respect? And so to borrow a line from Juliet as she contemplates Romeo's identity as a Montague, "What's in a name?" (Romeo & Juliet II.ii 43).

To answer this question, I believe it is necessary to challenge our everyday assumptions about names and about language itself. Language is usually understood today as an arrangement of sounds and letters agreed upon by a group of people to have a certain meaning. Words are important, but they are also undeniably artificial or conventional, and they are also more often than not inadequate in conveying what we really mean. That is why we sometimes have more than one word for the same object or action, or why we need so many adjectives and adverbs to qualify our statements, or why there are so many specialized languages for different areas of life: for science, business, sports, religion, and so on.

But things were not always so. The Book of Genesis records a fascinating story of the use and abuse, or better yet, the rise and fall, of names. The story begins with God's naming parts of His creation, such as the day, the night, and the firmament. This is a special kind of naming, taking place outside of the normal boundaries of space and time and without bodily tongue or voice. The naming here seems to suggest that God was giving each thing a meaning, an intelligibility, an inner coherence. The divinely given name of each thing, in other words, was its essence, its true and proper nature or identity. This divine naming, in turn, provides the ground for the human naming that takes place before the Fall. When God has Adam name the beasts, the Bible says that "whatsoever Adam called any living creature, the same is its name" (Gen. 2.19). This peculiar phrasing suggests that Adam did not simply assign them a name, as is commonly supposed, but that he correctly identified their "natural" or God-given name. As a perfect man untainted by any of the debilitation of sin, Adam knew the creatures by their essences; he knew them in a way which, even with all of our scientific learning, we can only envy. And his knowing their essences enabled him to utter their true names.

So man in the Garden of Eden was a "Super Namer," someone with the ability to hit the noetic nail on the head every time. But something happens on the way to perfect wisdom and bliss: man falls, and in falling he dims the light of his mind by which he was able to name so effectively. Naming after the Fall is no longer animated by a desire to know; instead it tends to reflect the opposite, an indifference to wisdom and a lust for power. Or put differently, naming is now used as a way of becoming godlike in an ungodly manner. "Cain" is the first name to reflect this new set of priorities. When he is born, Eve proudly proclaims, "I have gotten a man with the Lord" (4.1). Cain is named after the word Eve uses for "gotten," cayen; he is not named in honor of the Lord's help because Eve is emphasizing her ability to create, or be-get a man, just like God. Cain, in turn, names the city he founds after his son, Enoch, because Cain is seeking a sort of divine immortality through his posterity and being the founder of a nation. Several generations later, when the "earth was [still] of one tongue and of the same speech" (11.1), mankind gathered together in one place and said to themselves, "come, let us make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven; and let us make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands" (11.3,4). And so they begin to build the Tower of Babel to reach the perfection of heaven on their own, embarking on the most ambitious building project in human history.

Man's perverse naming, however, always has ironic results. Eve names her son after "getting," only to see her son become a rapacious taker of others peoples' lives and property. Cain names his city after his son in order to live through his founding, but every one of his descendants is wiped out by the Flood. And the people of Babel build a tower to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered, only to have their names become unintelligible to their own neighbor and to be scattered precisely because of their proud scheme. In each case man's action brings about the very thing he was trying to avoid; in each case their proud act of naming boomerangs, making them worse off than before.

Because this pathetic pattern of disobedience only ends up defacing the divine image in which man is made, rendering him ever more wretched, God takes pity on his fallen creatures and on His own initiates a second trajectory of naming. God first does this with Abram, whom he calls out from the land of Ur to become the father of a great nation, and thus changes his name to Abraham, which means, "Father of the multitude" (Gen. 17.5). Renaming shows precisely how God is consecrating an individual for His use. Jacob becomes Israel (Gen. 32.28, 35.10), "he who strives with God" (a perfect label for the tumultuous affair between God and His chosen people), Simon becomes Peter, the "rock," or petrus, on which the Church is built, and so on. This renaming even extends to the redeemed in general (think of the significance of having a baptismal name). God promises to His elect that he will give "them a name better than sons and daughters," he "will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56.5).

But the most important name that God gives is His own. This revelation happens gradually and only after a considerable amount of time. Adam, even before the Fall, did not name God. Adam could only name what he understood and not even when he was sinless could he understand God's essence. This is astonishing because Adam talked with God and walked with God; he shared an intimacy with his Maker that later generations did not. And yet he did not, he could not, know His name. Adam's grandson Enos is the first to "call upon the name of the Lord" (Gen. 4.26), but this does not necessarily mean that he knew what the name was. Noah built an ark and gathered the animals of the earth into it, but he did so without knowing the name of the God who was instructing him. God did reveal more to Abraham, with whom He made an everlasting covenant. When God established the covenant, He said simply, "I AM" (Gen. 17.4). This is certainly significant, but again, it is not yet the full name. Many generations must pass before God reveals His moniker. This finally happens on Mount Sinai, when the Lord appears to Moses in the burning bush, and says:

I AM WHO AM... Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS hath sent you (Ex. 3.14)... This is my name forever, and this is my memorial unto all generations (15).

Thus we know that the name of the Lord is "Jehovah" or "Yahweh," which comes from different forms of the Hebrew verb "to be," ye and wah. The name is considered so sacred that even today pious Jews will not pronounce it; only the chief Rabbi on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, dares to utter it. This reticence hearkens back to an ancient tradition that the name of God was only pronounced on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest, the only day of the year when he entered the Holy of Holies, the chamber where the ark of the covenant was kept. With his head covered in a miter that had inscribed on it in gold the four letters of the Holy Name, he would pass through the veil that closed off this sacred space, and with his hands dripping in the blood of bulls and goats, he would make an offering for the remission of the sins of the people. On that day, when the High Priest pronounced the name, the multitude who heard it would fall on their knees and prostrate themselves on the ground. In fact, though we say "Yahweh," no one is really certain how the Holy Name was pronounced. Only the Levitical priests used it, and so when the priesthood died out after the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, so too did knowledge of the name. (Incidentally, today falls in between two memorials of this great Hebrew feast. Next Sunday evening Jews will begin their observance of Yom Kippur, while last Saturday the traditional Roman rite commemorated the Day of Atonement in its Ember Saturday Mass and office. We are therefore talking about the Holy Name on a day that is sandwiched between two reminders of its utmost sacredness and power).

The Holy Name Yahweh is significant because it gives us a clue into God's true nature. "I AM WHO AM" or "HE WHO IS" might not sound very descriptive, but that's the point. God is so ineffable, so excellent, that he surpasses our ability to understand him. What the name does tell us is that God exists, purely and absolutely. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this by saying that God's essence equals His existence (cf. Summa Theologić I.3.4, I.13.11). What he means by this statement is that God is so great that His essence or nature is not modified or qualified by any attributes; He is absolute, unlimited being. Ironically, God's essence is incomprehensible to man, not because it is so complicated but because it is so simple. Chesterton tells the story of the lady who read Aquinas' treatise on the divine simplicity, put it down with a sigh, and said, "If this is God's simplicity, I'd hate to see His complexity." We react this way because our minds are accustomed to grasp small, fragmented pieces of the big picture, but they are not geared in this life to comprehend the primal ground of all being.

And so, if God is to be accurately known by man, it is God who must tell us who He is. The name, of course, does not enable us to understand God's essence, but it does enable us to identify it, and that is why it is so important. Remember that sin is an attempt to make oneself God, to name however one pleases. God's revealing His Holy Name reminds man that he is not God: as Yahweh says on Mount Sinai, His name "is a memorial unto all generations," a testimony to the reality of His existence. The divine name is thus, among other things, a corrective to bad human naming and a re-directing of man's attention away from his lust for power back towards the true God. With its hint of God's true essence, the Holy Name "Yahweh" is a call to return to that pristine naming before the Fall, when names were yoked to a desire to know, to an exultation in the wonder of God's created order, and when they had nothing to do with the vain attempt to impose one's own order upon things. The Holy Name is a call to conversion.

And so it remained for several hundred years until an angel named Gabriel appeared one day in March to a sixteen-year-old girl named Mary and told her that she would bear the Son of God. Gabriel's announcement was tremendous. He was in effect saying that the God of pure existence and absolute being, the God who suffers neither change nor shadow of alteration, was somehow taking on human flesh, entering our fallen world by being born of woman. The unimaginable God was now to be visible and tangible and standing among us, and, what is more, he was coming to save us from our sins, to deliver us once and for all from our perverse aversion to the Good. Thus, by order of the Deity, Gabriel tells Mary that her son will be named Jesus, which is Hebrew for "Yahweh is salvation."

There are several things that are significant about this name "Jesus." First of all, notice that it suggests that the mysterious Yahweh of the Old Testament was not simply God, but God the Son. Now of course, as meaning "HE WHO IS," the name "Yahweh" applies equally to all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, for all three Persons are equally absolute in their being. Nevertheless, both Scripture and Tradition imply that the term Yahweh applies especially to the Son. When Christ is speaking to the Jews, for example, he shocks them by asserting, "Amen, Amen, I say to you: before Abraham was made, I AM" (Jn. 8.58). They are scandalized because they rightly see this statement as a claim to be the selfsame God who revealed His name to Moses. The identification of Yahweh and Jesus is also hinted at in an ancient tradition which says that the bush in which Yahweh appeared, the Rhamnus bush, was later used to make the crown of thorns. And finally, the association is present in our liturgical tradition. One of the so-called "Great," or "O," antiphons for the Magnificat in the week before Christmas is:

O Adonai, leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm (Dec. 18, Rom. Breviarum).

Notice that the antiphon, which is addressing the Divine Person who appeared to Moses, is clearly addressing God the Son, since it is he who comes to us on Christmas Day. Incidentally, this is where the custom of decking the halls with boughs of holly comes from. The prickly leaves and red berries of holly remind us of the crown of thorns and drops of blood from our Lord's Passion, but they are also supposed to recall the thorny bush and the reddish fire in which Yahweh once appeared (Weiser, Handbook of Christian Customs, 140). The point seems to be that in order to know who this infant in the manger is, one must look forwards to his saving action on the Cross, and one must also look backwards to His revelation to Moses centuries earlier. The implication is clear: Jesus is Yahweh incarnate, Yahweh is the Son before He becomes incarnate.

The second significant thing about the name Jesus is that it not only identifies the carpenter from Nazareth as Yahweh, but also identifies Him as a savior. In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel tells Joseph that the boy's name will be Jesus because "he shall save his people from their sins" (1.21, emph. added). Jesus' name is explained in terms of its salvific connotation, and all the other names given to Jesus in the Old and New Testaments point to this central fact. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, the names ascribed to Christ, such as Emmanuel, Prince of Peace, and Wonder-Counselor, all designate some aspect of our salvation as it was wrought by Him, be it the cause of salvation, the method, the result, and so on (ST III.37.2). The Holy Name is so linked to the notion of salvation that it is even said to be written on the foreheads of those who are saved. In the Book of the Apocalypse, the Lamb of God tells the apostle John, "I will write upon [the elect] the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and my new name" (3.12).

Third, the concepts of "Yahweh" and "salvation" embedded in the name of Jesus illuminate the striking parallels between Good Friday and Yom Kippur. Just as on Yom Kippur the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of animals, on Good Friday Jesus Christ entered Heaven, the ultimate sanctuary, with His own blood (Heb. 9.11,12). Just as the High Priest offered blood in order to save the people from their sins, so too did Jesus offer His own blood for the same reason, only His sacrifice actually worked (Heb. 9.13,14). Just as the High Priest cast all of the sins of the people on the innocent "scapegoat" and then had it killed outside the city, so too was Jesus, taking on our sins and being crucified on a hill outside the city, made the innocent scapegoat by the High Priest Caiaphas because Caiaphas considered it "expedient that one man should die for the people" (Jn. 18.14). And finally, just as the High Priest on this day alone wore the miter with the Holy Name inscribed on it, so too on the day of His death did the Holy Name of Jesus hang over His head in an inscription nailed to the cross.

But if the name of Jesus is the heir apparent to the name Yahweh, why is it not accorded the same kind of veneration? The name Jesus can be pronounced by anyone at anytime and it is anything but unique. It was first used centuries before the Annunciation with Moses' successor, Joshua, or Jehoshua, which is the Hebrew form of "Jesus." And the name continued to be used afterwards, not just for notable persons, but for relatively insignificant ones as well: one of Christ's lesser known ancestors, for example, bore the name (Lk. 3.29). Moreover, around the time that Christ was born, "Jesus" was a common name for men, either in its Aramaic form (Yeshu) or its Greek form (Iesous); and in fact it remains popular in Arabic and Spanish speaking countries today.

There are, in my opinion, two reasons for this change in the mode of reverence. The first ties into the one enormous difference between Yahweh and Jesus. The difference is that the name "Jesus" denotes the Word made flesh; it denotes the Incarnate Word as opposed to the Word before it becomes incarnate. And the Incarnation changes everything. Before the Incarnation, for example, absolutely no images of God were allowed because God was a spirit who could not be imagined. But once God became man, images, or in the Greek, ikons, of Him proliferated because now we could see with our own eyes what God looked like. The same applies to the name of God: it was unpronounceable before the Word was tangible, but once that is no longer the case, the new name of God can be invoked by all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

The second reason for this different use of the Holy Name is that its significance or power lies not in what it is but in what it points to. This is the crucial difference between magic and superstition on the one hand and Catholic faith on the other. In magic and superstition, the power of the words is in the words themselves: it is the sound of "Abra-cadabra," for example, that is supposed to unlock the door. But with Catholic practice the significance of words is in what the words signify. That is why the name Jesus can be pronounced and spelled in a great number of ways without losing any of its power, and that it can even be used to designate men who are not the Savior without diminishing the identity of the one who is. The only thing that matters is that when the name is used piously, it is used to point to the one, unique person who was crucified on the hills of Palestine 2,000 years ago. In the words of Colvenerius:

We give honour to the Name of Jesus, not because we believe there is any intrinsic power hidden in the letters composing it, but because the Name of Jesus reminds us of all the blessings we receive through our Holy Redeemer. To give thanks for these blessings we revere the Holy Name, [just] as we honour the Passion of Christ by honouring His Cross ("De festo SS nominis," ix).

Interestingly enough, this peculiar self-negating quality of the Holy Name is attested in one of the most famous New Testament passages praising it, the passage that is used as an antiphon during our Tenebrae services of the sacred Triduum. The passage is from St. Paul:

[Christ] humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names: That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (Phil. 2.8-10).

When St. Paul writes that God gave Christ "the name which is above all names," notice what he does not say. He does not say the Holy Name is above "every other name" but that it is "above every name," including itself (cf. Eph. 1.21, "above... every name that is named"). The name that God gave Christ, in other words, somehow transcends itself; it is somehow "bigger" than itself.

This, of course, does not mean that the name is unimportant. Quite the contrary, names are crucial in properly identifying and designating things. Such is why, for example, the historic apostolic churches each have their own sacred language: the Roman church has Latin, the Greeks have Byzantine Greek, the Armenians have classical Armenian, and so on. Traditional and orthodox Christians do not preserve these sacred languages because they believe that there is a power or even a superiority to a particular tongue. If they believed this, they would not have moved away from Hebrew or Greek in the first place; they would have been like Muslims, who consider it impious to translate the Qu'ran from Arabic. But Christians did fashion sacred languages in order to exert a tighter control over the meaning of words so that the words would more efficiently and accurately point to the divine realities they were trying to communicate. That is why so-called "dead" languages were considered ideal, because once a language is dead the meaning of its words is less likely to undergo change, thereby minimizing ground for confusion or misinterpretation. But the particular language itself is irrelevant. I have been told that when Jesuit missionaries in China petitioned Rome for a uniquely Chinese rite, Rome replied affirmatively but with a number of conditions, one of them being that if Chinese were to be the language of worship, it had to be classical Chinese. It did not matter that Latin was not being used, but Rome wanted something equally "dead," so to speak, equally removed from the profane discourse of the day. (Unfortunately for both the Church and China, the Chinese Emperor was unaccustomed to being told what to do and did not take kindly to the stipulation, so the new rite never materialized. Maybe if it had, the 120 Chinese martyrs that His Holiness is canonizing today would not have had to give up their lives for the faith.)

I mention sacred languages as a way of showing how we can answer one of our initial questions, why we venerate a set of syllables. The answer is that we don't. We venerate the meaning of the name of Jesus, not its letters or its sounds, and if we do pay homage to those things, it is only derivatively, because as Catholics we recognize in a sober and rational way the great utility of physical or sensible things as nmemonic devices for spiritual realities. (Remember that both names Yahweh and Jesus are described as "memorials," reminders of who God is and what He has done for us.)

And so, in response to the question, "What's in a name?" we are forced to answer at the same time, "nothing and everything." On the one hand names are conventions of sound and scribble with no real power of their own. On the other hand, they are indispensable signposts to reality. And this is especially the case when that signpost is crafted by God to point to God, as it is in the name of Jesus; when this happens, the memory of the person evokes the power of His reality. That is why the "name of the Lord" is to be praised from the rising of the sun unto its going down (Ps. 112.3); that is why it effects such miracles and banishes so much evil; that is why those who are signed with it no longer live to themselves but in Christ. And that is why Pope Pius XII, in the midst of the ravages of the Second World War, could say so eloquently,

The grandeur of Thy name, O Jesus, went before, accompanied, and followed Thy coming upon earth. From eternity the Father carried that name written in golden letters in His mind, and at the dawn of creation angelic harps intoned a hymn of praise to it, and the holy men of old greeted it from afar with a joyous heart-beat of hope. At its first echoes in the universe, the heavens opened, earth breathed again, and hell trembled. Its history records nothing but triumphs. For twenty centuries it has been the watch-word of true believers, who have always found in it, and will continue to find therein, the inspiration and the impelling power to reach the most exalted heights of virtue. It will ever be the sweetest name of all; it was spoken over Thy manger and inscribed upon the Cross; and through all the years it will bring to man's remembrance Him who loved us even unto death (1950 Raccolta, #129).]


Thank you, and blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth now and forever (Ps. 112.2).

(© 2000 by Michael P. Foley)

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