A Reflection on our Name

1 January 2008. A New Year’s Homily
Luke 2, 16-21 The Holy Name of Jesus; The Circumcision of Jesus; the Holy Mother of God; World Day of Peace

On the first day of the year, the Catholic Church does not celebrate the ‘new year’ since her calendar begins on the first Sunday of Advent. However, this day is also very significant to the Church’s liturgy because it commemorates several feasts of Jesus and Mary: The Holy Name and Circumcision of Jesus; The Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Holy Mother of God; and the World Day of Peace as proclaimed by the Pope. Let me try to put all these things together, but using the Holy Name of Jesus as its structure. We, Jesuits, are celebrating its feast because we are named after Jesus (Society of Jesus).

Name-giving for the Jewish boys were given during circumcision usually done eight days from birth. This practice signifies his dedication to the Law of Moses. The name of the child becomes important. To signify lineage, he is named after anyone from his clan. When Zechariah named his son, John, he meant several things. First, John means Jehovah’s gift or God is gracious, an acknowledgement of the truth surrounding John’s birth. Second, it is a discreet way of showing gratitude to God. Finally, it is obedience to God: it is the name which God asked Zechariah to name his child. Despite the people’s expectation to name the child after his father or ancestors, Zechariah defied convention if it was God’s will. Zechariah then proved his trust in God’s word, and finally regained his voice. Because of this, people began to wonder what the child will turn out to be. The same thing with Jesus. When he was circumcised, he was named in obedience to God as the angel instructed them. And the whole of John and Jesus’ life will be in obedience to the will of God.

What’s in a name? The primary purpose of giving something a name is that, when it’s not around for you to point at, you can refer to it by name. It gives you an identity. For example, even if you don’t know what a pencil sharpener looks like, you can still figure out what it is or does. The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.  Giving a name to a person, a module, a class, or a method is a sign that you truly understand what it’s supposed to do.

A name in the Philippines can also identify one’s roots and where they come from. On November 21, 1849 (Philippine History), Governor General Narciso Clavería ordered a systematic distribution of family names for the natives to use. The Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos was produced and approved names were assigned to families in all towns. In the province of Albay, the first letter of one’s surname indicates what town they belong to. If you’re surname begins with A or B, you’re probably from Tabaco; the Gs to Ms from Camalig; the R’s from Oas, Albay. The same thing with the towns in Iloilo. Moreover, it can also indicate one’s social class. Certain names bear the old names of tribes: Lakandula, Sulayman, Maglaban, Magtanggol, Mangahas, etc. They were retained because of their ‘fighting names’ and perhaps, they were members of the ruling class.

But some retained Filipino names are unfortunate. GMA 7’s I-Witness once featured a documentary called, “Sa Ngalan ng Pangalan”. Howie Severino featured two clans, one of them are the Bagongahasa clan in Paete, Laguna, where two generations have been debating the option of changing their name legally. [Bagongahasa means in Tagalog, “newly raped” from bago (new) gahasa (rape)] Whatever their differences of opinion, they all agree that it does have recall. But when Howie asked them if Gloria Arroyo would win any elections if her name was Bagongahasa, they also agreed that she probably wouldn’t.

Who is Mr. Bagongahasa? In Paete, Laguna, he is a retired US Navy man who is proud of his name and has it emblazoned all over his house. His cousin, however, is a Barangay Captain who desperately wants to change his name. The women of the family feel particularly aggrieved; the younger ones are eager to marry in order to shed the Bagongahasa surname.

In Mindanao, I baptized a child named, Sixbam. When I asked the parents, they told me it is a conjugation of their names. The father’s name was Sixto; the mother was Bambi! I had them change their daughter’s name. Elza Dinwiddie-Boyd, who wrote 1994’s Proud Heritage: 11,001 Names for Your African-American Baby, says that a name is important because it begins to give a person an identity. She says that a name is not all that you are, but it is certainly what you are first known by. “Parents do need to take into consideration, certainly in elementary school, that historically kids have been teased when they had unusual, different or odd names. Kids get teased about names.

Second, a change of name marks a change of identity and lifestyle. Scriptures are filled with people who changed their names and thus, their life. Here are examples.

Abram to Abraham “father of a multitude.”
Jacob to Israel “God’s strong one.”
The apostle of Elijah called himself Elisha, “the small Elijah”.
John the Baptist “God’s Graciousness” or “God’s Gift”: Yehohanan.
Simon to Peter “the Rock”
Saul of Tarsus to Paul: from a persecutor to a disciple of Christ.
Even today, many religious congregations change their names or add a saint’s name (called a vow name): My vow name is Ignacio Maria.

A change of name is also a change of image. Town officials in Sexmoan, Pampanga decided to change their town’s name, while residents of Barangay Baliw (Baliw in Filipino means deranged) in Ilocos Sur refuse to do so.

Hector Santos writes in his blog: “As we planted our roots in the U.S., we started calling ourselves by more popular American names. Pedring is now Peter; Carlos or Carling is now Charles or Chuck, German is now Gerry but not Germs and Marcelina is now Marsha. I do not fault these name-changing, perhaps, it’s our way of discarding the old ways and announcing their new found life by making our names more adaptive to the people we will be living with from hereon.” Here are some names in a relatively old list:

Remigio Batungbacal: Remington Steel
Leon Mangubat: Tiger Woods
Maria Pascua: Merry Christmas
Ligaya Añonuevo: Happy New Year

Our names also changed as we grow older. We may be called by our ‘baby names’ when we were toddlers; our first names in grade school; another name by our group of friends; and another by lovers. The names they call us indicate how close they are to us, or how far they are to us (as names bullies tease us with).

This new year, we may reflect on the names people have called us in our lives. What name is very significant to you? What name do you want to hear? I know mothers who yearn to hear “Mama” or “Mommy” from their children. It is one identity they love to be.

Or, if names give us identity and tell us about our life and history and if a change of name is necessary for a change in lifestyle, perhaps we can ask the following question. If I were given a second chance to mark a new ME, what would I call myself?

In baptism, we were marked with the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. And with the grace of baptism, as the second reading tells us, we become adopted children of God, and thus children of Mary. Do we bear in our lives the name of Jesus?

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