On a Name Like No Other
(Is.42:1-4,6-7; Acts 10:34-38; Mt.3:13-17)
‘What’s in a name?’ Juliet asks in Shakespeare’s famous play. She loves Romeo, but their families are at war.
Names are just an arbitrary tag, Juliet thinks. She loves the man, not his moniker: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, she says. [i] But are our names so unimportant?
The German poet Goethe (1749-1832) once wrote: ‘A man’s name is not like a mantle which merely hangs about him, and which one perchance may safely twitch and pull, but a perfectly fitting garment, which, like the skin, has grown over and over him, at which one cannot rake and scrape without injuring the man himself.’ [ii]
Our names serve many purposes. They distinguish us from others, they bind us to history, and they underpin our identity and personality. And a good name is especially valuable, for it reflects integrity and it earns trust (Prov.22:1).
But to lose one’s name can be a wretched thing. Jean Valjean, in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, feels degraded when he’s called ‘24601’ in prison.[iii] And David Pelzer, in his memoir A Child Called It, finds it dehumanising when his abusive mother starts calling him ‘The Boy’ and ‘It’ when he’s only four. [iv]
Names, however, can also give new life. In Genesis, God renames Abram and Sarai. They become Abraham and Sarah, the ‘father and mother of many nations’ (Gen.17:5, 15). God also gives Jacob (meaning ‘cheat’) a new identity. He becomes Israel (‘struggles with God and prevails’), reflecting his new role as patriarch of the Israelites (Gen.32:28).
And Jesus gives Simon a new name (Jn.1:42), calling him Peter, ‘the rock on which I will build my church’ (Mt.16:18).
In each case, God embeds his love, and their special mission, in their names.
Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus Christ, we remember that every baptism starts with the question: ‘What name do you give your child?’ This sacrament is essentially about our identity. It’s about who we are, and who we will become.
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River marks a new beginning for him. He’s filled with the Holy Spirit and his Father announces: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased’. At that moment, Jesus’ identity changes.
He’s no longer just the humble carpenter’s son. He’s now the beloved Son of God, and this is the start of his public ministry.
Jesus’ name still sounds the same, but its essence has completely changed. His mission – his life purpose – is now deeply embedded in his name.
And so it is with us. At Baptism our identity changes, too. We’re initiated into the life of Christ and we’re warmly welcomed as members of God’s holy family (Eph.1:5).
And our mission is embedded in our name, as well.
Bishop Robert Barron says that one of the earliest descriptions of Baptism is vitae spiritualis ianua, which means ‘the door to the spiritual life’.
Christianity, he says, isn’t just about ‘becoming a good person’ or ‘doing the right thing’. Rather, to be a Christian is to be grafted onto Christ and hence drawn into the very dynamics of God’s inner life. We become a member of his Mystical Body, sharing in his relationship to the Father. [v]
Pope Benedict XVI puts it this way. He says that Baptism always repeats the last words of Jesus in the Gospels: ‘in the name of the Father, of the Son, of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt 28:19). This expression in the Greek text is critical, he says, for it means an immersion into the name of the Trinity. Baptism therefore leads to an ‘interpenetration of God’s being and our being, just like in marriage, when two persons become one flesh and a single new reality’ is formed.
Pope Benedict XVI adds that in the Scriptures, God calls himself ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Gen.50:24; Ex.3:15). This is precisely what happens when we’re baptised, he says. We become inserted into the name of God, so that we belong to his name and his name becomes our name, too, and we’re enabled to be a sign of who he is. [vi]
A name, then, is so much more than a label, especially after Baptism. Each name tells a story and paves the way for a lifetime of noble purpose.
When we’re immersed in the waters of Baptism, we’re simultaneously immersed in the life of God. We’re filled with his Holy Spirit and we emerge with a name like no other. And embedded in it is our own special mission.
At his Baptism, Jesus knows that things have changed. He goes into the desert for forty days to reflect on what it means and what God wants him to do next.
We should do the same.
So, what is your name?
And what is your special mission?
[i] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, https://www.playshakespeare.com/romeo-and-juliet/scenes/301-act-ii-scene-2
[iii] Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, http://www.online-literature.com/victor_hugo/les_miserables/90/