By Father Roger Vermalen-Karban
What's in a Name?
The readings for Sunday, June 19,2011, Holy Trinity, are
Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9, II Corinthians 13:11-13, John 3:16-18.
After years of reflection, I’m convinced when some of us speak or think about God, we’re really thinking or speaking about a concept, rather than a real person.
I presume our ancestors in the faith worried about us falling into such a trap. That’s why they bent over theologically backward to prevent such an abomination from happening. Today’s Exodus author, for instance, describes the Mt. Sinai covenant-making ceremony in great detail. “Having come down in a cloud, Yahweh stood with Moses there and proclaimed his name, ‘Yahweh.’ Thus Yahweh passed before him and cried out, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a manifest and glorious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.’”
In biblical cultures, a person’s name is only employed when one is trying to convey the personality of that particular individual, aspects of the person not shared with everyone.
There’s a scene in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” in which Omar Sharif not only rides up and puts a bullet between the eyes of Lawrence’s desert guide, but then immediately demands to know, “Englishman, what is your name?”
Lawrence gives him the highest insult a Semite can deliver. “My name is for my friends!” In other words, “I’m not going to tell you anything about myself. I don’t share who I am with my enemies.”
Thankfully Yahweh has put all of us on his/her “friends’ list.” We’re all invited to find out who Yahweh is.
It’s no accident Sister Elizabeth Johnson entitled her recent, well-received book “Quest for the Living God.” She states in her introduction. “Living means the opposite of dead. ... This appellation summons up a sense of the God who is full of energy and spirit, alive with design for liberation and healing, always approaching from the future to do something new … (It) evokes the realization that there is always more to divine Mystery than human beings can nail down. It prepares those who use it for astonishment.”
Throughout my decades of teaching marriage courses, I consistently warned my students about reaching a point in their marriages in which they presume they’d learned everything there was to learn about their spouses. In that instant, meaningful relationships die. After that, we’re just going through the gestures.
Jesus’ first followers were never in danger of falling into that trap. In their writings we constantly hear the amazement which comes from discovering “new things” about God, especially things which appeared when they tried to imitate Jesus’ dying and rising in their daily lives.
Paul refers to just a few of these insights in our II Corinthians pericope. He first gives God the title, “God of love and peace,” then applies different attributes to the Father, Son and Spirit. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Spirit be with all of you.” Life (grace), love and togetherness (fellowship) are individual dimensions of God which the risen Jesus surfaces in the lives of his followers; parts of God’s personality which he helps us discover.
John, conceiving of Jesus as God’s word, presumes the living God is mirrored in the living, risen Jesus. If Jesus loves and saves, then God loves and saves. Believing in the name of the only Son of God parallels believing in the name of Yahweh.
Had our faith ancestors been content to repeat only “catechism concepts” of God, we wouldn’t be celebrating today’s feast of the Trinity. It took almost 300 years of Christians reflecting on their ever-changing experiences of God before participants in the 325 AD Council of Nicea came up with the insight of three persons in one God. It certainly wasn’t there on Easter Sunday night.
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