All it took for Mary Magdalene to recognize (the somehow transformed) Jesus outside the tomb was the sound of her name coming from his lips. “Mary,” he said, and then she knew. May we each hear – deep in our hearts or in the call of those who need us today – the name by which the Beloved calls us and may we know at that moment how greatly we are loved. Then may our response be a wholehearted “Yes!” (JN 20: 1-2, 11-18)
Psalm 100 is brief but clear and direct in how we are to be in relationship with God. The psalmist calls to us to “know that the Lord is God” and assures us that we are “the sheep of God’s flock.” We are instructed to sing joyfully, serving the Lord, giving praise and thanksgiving to the One who is good, kind and faithful to all generations. Very succinct and all-encompassing advice, we might say.
One phrase deserves special notice, I think, for our everyday lives. It not only says “Give thanks to God” but follows that clause with “bless God’s name.” Having just come from a retreat where we were introduced to the Sufi practice of chanting the 99 names of God, I was reminded of my effort to learn the names of all those on retreat. There were only 16 of us so it was obviously much easier than learning all the names of God, and since we were in silence throughout the retreat one could argue that it wasn’t as essential as in most other situations. For me, however, knowing someone’s name implies at least a beginning of relationship and is important, no matter the situation. How might this also be true with regard to our relationship with God? In his commentary on Psalm 100, Lynn Bauman seems to agree as he writes the following:
If you do not know someone’s name, what is your relationship like? When you both know the name and the person behind the name in a personal way, how does the relationship change? Pause and reflect on your own knowledge of the name of God. (Ancient Songs Sung Anew, p. 252)
One of my friends calls me Valerie. Urban legend has it that my mother wanted that to be my name but that she was convinced otherwise. It was probably the same dramatic flair in her that desired to call my sister “Heather Angel” which I’m told was the name of an actress back in the day. I smile now when that image of my mother bubbles up. She had her own delightful story of being named Mary Frances but always being called May. Her birthday was May first and the story goes that she was put in a May basket when she was born. I don’t really know what that means specifically (and never asked!) but I envision ribbons and flowers surrounding her sweet self as she greeted the world.
All this palaver about names derives from Samuel’s confusion about who was calling him out of sleep in the first reading from today’s lectionary. (1 SM 15:16-23) He thought it was his mentor, Eli, when it was really a deeper, inner call that he was hearing. Still a small boy, he didn’t yet understand the call of God in his life but was obedient to the directive of Eli who finally got the message of what was happening. So little Samuel began to respond when he heard his name – most likely before he had any idea of the meaning for his life – with the unconditional declarative statement: Here I am, Lord!
We are called by name in formal and informal ways during our lives. When in a situation of a roll-call vote, there is a sense of weightiness, of “putting your life on the line” for what you believe and are willing to stand up for. Additionally, when someone uses my name in a sentence (as in: “Can you see, Lois, the importance of this issue?”) I tend to wake up a bit more to what they’re asking. Thus, living into our names means living into truth and to deep listening for God’s word in our lives. Psalm 40 says it clearly to me today in the following translation.
For even in the scroll of Torah, the book you wrote, it is said that I should simply do your will. That is it, your whole desire, which has now become my soul’s delight. So from my heart I keep your ways, your law of life. (Ancient Songs Sung Anew, p. 99)
In this morning’s first lectionary reading from the Book of Genesis, chapter 17, we have a continuation of God’s conversation with Abram, now known as Abraham, about his wife Sarai, now to be called Sarah because she was to be blessed with a child in her old age – surely a direct result of God’s favor. Those seem hardly noticeable changes, but changes nevertheless. We add or change our names also at certain junctures for different reasons, most commonly in marriage (now often by hyphenation rather than leaving a birth name connection behind) and religiously in the Christian sacrament of Confirmation where our new, additional name should honor a person or signify a character of holiness that we wish to achieve.
I was always happy with my name in one sense; I was always the only Lois in my class at school and it was rare to meet someone else so named. That was easier than trying to figure out which Mary or Maureen or Michael was the subject of conversation. It was only in my high school Math class that I jumped every once in awhile, thinking I had been called on, when the truth was that the teacher was talking about the “lowest common denominator.” (Say that phrase aloud quickly and you may see what I mean.)
On the other hand, I grew up with lots of references to being Superman’s girlfriend, Lois Lane, which wasn’t so bad, I guess, but would have been better if I really had access to the favors of such a hero. More concerning was the question of my “patron saint.” All Catholic children had to have a name derived from that of a recognized saint of the Church so my patron, I was told, had to be St. Louis (King Louis IX of France) or St. Louise de Marillac, founder of the Daughters of Charity, a religious community of nuns in the 16th century. Since my name was not Louis or Louise, I chose always to remind people that my middle name was Ann – mother of Mary, grandmother of Jesus, which was okay but not easily evident and required explanation. Imagine my joy and surprise when I began to read the Bible and realized that the second Letter of Paul to Timothy spoke of Timothy’s “mother Eunice and grandmother Lois.” What a relief!
All of this babble is only half of the point I wish to make this morning. My first thought was to focus on the importance of our names and whether or not we “inhabit” them. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with “Lois” although when spoken by someone who loved me it always sounded better. As I have grown into and accepted more and more the person whose name is Lois, I am more content. I do wonder about the son that was born to Abraham and Sarah in fulfillment of God’s promise, however. How would you feel if your name meant “he laughs” which was Abraham’s reaction to God’s prediction. Unless Isaac could turn the meaning around and become a happy-go-lucky person (quite hard work if we believe the chronicles of his life), I think he must’ve struggled a bit!
What about you? Do you know the genesis of your name? Is it special to you? Have you grown into it gradually or always been comfortable? Do you have a special, secret name by which you hear God or special people call you? What name would you choose if you were given the opportunity, and why? Today I plan to listen for God saying my name in the silence. Hearing that call could be more precious than gold.
When my brother was born (finally, a boy!) there was some talk about what name he would be given. I recall hearing that my mother’s choices were Stephen or Victor but that my father (John) was clear that his name is John. Thinking of that always puts me in mind of the story of Zachariah who was also very clear about it – for a serious reason, of course. (LK 1:57-66,80) We think my brother is pretty special and although there was sometimes confusion about who my mother was calling to a task or to dinner, his name suits him as one called from birth (IS. 49:1). I find myself standing up straighter and feeling confident, just by saying the name “John.”
That phrase “called from birth” is worth attention from each of us since it is true, I think, of all of us. Sometimes it takes a very long time to figure out the specifics and depth of what that call means. These days it is rare for people to stay in one job or even one career for the extent of their work life. Coming to know our deeper identity as we look in the mirror and place ourselves in the presence of the Divine can be even more evolutionary, yet often daunting. Knowing ourselves as ‘the beloved of God” is a lifelong, graceful becoming.
Today might be a good day to consider our given name and how we inhabit it. Have we a special (maybe secret) chosen name by which we hear God call to us? Is it possible that those two names might be coming to a convergence? What might we do to encourage that unity to emerge?
Sometimes I think I understand the meaning in the psalms but, as I come to appreciate the importance of experience rather than or in addition to intellectual grasp of a reality, I know I have a long way to go. Take this morning’s reading of psalm 63 for example. I’ve been thirsty in my life, especially when I’ve been doing outside work or walking a long way in the heat of the day, but I’ve never been crossing a desert without a canteen with the sun beating down on me. Can I really understand the depth of the psalmist’s cry: My soul is thirsting for you, O my God? If I stop with only that refrain, my answer is no; it seems a rather insipid expression of desire for God for someone used to running water in three rooms of our house. Thank goodness for the tug of poetic language that follows, lifting that longing to the highest pitch of the soul’s song. I suggest saying it aloud – or better yet singing it to the God who awaits our call.
O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek for you, my soul thirsts for you, my whole being longs for you in this dry and barren land where there is no water. I lift my eyes and behold! I see you standing in your holy place; I gaze and see your strength, your power, and the beauty of your face. And now I know that one drop of goodness from your hand is better far than life itself. I cannot stop these lips from praising you. So as long as life shall last for me, I will bless the name of God and lift up my hands to you in prayer. For my whole heart and soul are filled by you and satisfied as with a feast that loosens tongue and lips with songs of praise. When evening comes I go to be with you, and through the passing hours of the night I invoke your name in prayer. So whether day or night, it matters not, for you are ever at my side to guide, protect and shade as by a sheltering wing. My soul ever clings to you in joy; your strong hand reaches out and holds me fast. (PS 63: 1-8)
I spent the 24 hours from Friday evening at 7:00 to yesterday at 7:00pm with four lovely women delving into the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. I was going to say we took time out to sleep Friday night into Saturday, but I think in situations like that even our sleep is engaged in the reflection. One of the most beautiful moments in those Scriptures takes place in the garden where Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene who does not recognize him; she thinks, rather, that he is the gardener and pours out her distress that someone must have stolen the body of Jesus and she doesn’t know where they have taken him. We spent lots of time with the lines in the stories that we considered which note the lack of recognition of Jesus on the part of those to whom he appears and how they came to finally know him. This encounter with Mary is the most touching, I think, because most of us can relate to it from personal experience. When Mary begs to know where Jesus is, he simply replies by saying her name: “Mary” with, I imagine, all the feeling and tenderness of a beloved companion.
Our conversation about this text was spent in consideration of the way our name sounds from the mouth of one who loves us. Just the sound reveals the relationship. On hearing her name, Mary knew immediately that, however changed he was, it was certainly Jesus who was speaking to her. This morning I was reminded of this conversation and of the names we use to call on God by the appearance of Psalm 100 in the lectionary. I share the translation and commentary that I read as a synchronistic chance to reflect not only on the names of God but also of our human relationships and calling one another by name.
O, lands of earth, fill up with joy, and overflow in service to your God. Come before the holy presence, singing. Know this: I AM alone is God, and all that is and we ourselves are creatures made. Like sheep we enter through the gates of life to feed upon the living pastures unafraid. Our praise becomes the doorway to that realm where we can know and speak the sacred name and taste the everlasting good of God from age to age.
COMMENTARY: Verse 3 introduces the use of the sacred name, which has already been mentioned in verse 2 (as I AM). To know God is to know and be able to use or speak the name of God much in the same way we get to know someone and are able then to speak their name. Think about this imagery and the knowledge we have of the name of someone. If you do not know someone’s name, what is your relationship like? When you both know the name and the person behind the name in a personal way, how does that relationship change? Pause and reflect on your own knowledge of the name of God. (Ancient Songs Sung Anew, p. 252)
The readings this morning make me smile. It isn’t everyone who gets their name in the Bible, you know. Today (2TM 1:1-8) as Paul is writing to his young disciple, Timothy, he says: “…I recall your sincere faith that first lived in your grandmother, Lois…” Hah! See me special! (my ego says). Then swiftly on the heels of that, I read the gospel (MK 3: 31-35) where Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have arrived and are asking for him. He says in reply, “Who are my mother and my brothers?…Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” So much for my special relationship based in my name. The irony of the lectionary pairing did make me smile, however, and reminded me that each of us is special in our own way to God. That’s a good thing to remember no matter who is in our presence at each moment. Our full attention is required for it is God who desires our time and consciousness and who calls our name as if we were the only person present in the universe. May the joy of that knowledge bless you this day!