Our Name Defines Us


15 April 2008. Tuesday of the 4th Week of Easter
Acts 11, 19-26 What’s in a Name?

Scriptures put significance to one’s name and the act of naming. In Genesis, man names creatures. The Israelites put a great ceremony in the naming of a child such as John the Baptist. The first reading records that we were first called, Christians, in Antioch. Why is naming important?

A name points to a reality. When we name or put a label, we try to make sense of reality. When we talk about the weather, the name “weather” means all external phenomena at a given atmosphere (such as the Philippines) at a given time (such as today). It will include wind, cloud, rain, snow, fog or dust. We have special weather conditions such as storms which are less common than the daily change of weather conditions (though my homeplace experiences around 22 typhoons a year). In the Jewish faith, the Israelites do not pronounce the name of God, because it points to God, Himself. And a person who gives a name is someone greater than the creature or thing one names. Thus, the Hebrew rule not to use the name of God in vain (or even say His Name) comes from utmost reverence.

When we name, we define it. The etymology of define is “to put an end” — we clarify and therefore it will not end its vagueness or being amorphous. We capture the reality as in a photograph. We label a human being, an animal, a thing, a place, a product (a brand name), an idea or concept so that we may identify and distinguish it from one another. To name would point to a class or a category. A personal name identifies us as specific, unique, existing and identifiable individual persons. We name a person civilly as what we place in our birth certificate, or we add a name when we are baptized to mark a new person. There is an interesting study that dolphins respond to individual whistles, as in a name: in a group of dolphins who look almost the same, the “individual whistle” puts an end to “general” existence and would point to one specific individual dolphin. Or we define a relationship: we have to name the relationship so that we may act accordingly. Lovers have to define what they have: are they friends or are they companions with commitments?

We are identified as Christians. Our name carries with it the name of Christ. It does not only refer to an aspect of our lives, but it refers to everything about us. Christ defines who we are; as well as our name identifies the person we are named after. However, part of our identity is the process of growth: we are dynamic individuals. We struggle with God, as Jacob wrestled with the angel. But it is also with the struggle that Jacob acquired a new identity, “Israel”. Our name tells us that we remain the same, but it also designates that we are also ‘not the same’ — as we are homo viator.

In our lives, we acquired ‘different names’. We accumulated these names over the years. We have our nickname when we were children. We have names in school, in the workplace. We have our terms of endearment. All these names point to a specific stage in our lives or the degree of a relationship.

Let me propose something to think about today. List the names you have acquired all these years. What is the most significant name and why? Who calls you by that name? How does that name define you?

Then, look at your baptismal name. Are you moving towards being worthy to be called, Christian?

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