What’s in a name? People with normal names may not care much. But try living with an inappropriate name and you will understand why the narrator of the song Johnny Cash sings, “A boy Named Sue,” vows to “kill that man that gave me that awful name.” People with seemingly awful names almost always end up embarrassed during roll calls. Uncontrollable giggles can be heard whenever Gorgonia or Procopio are called out.
Added to this fray is the fact that people are sensitive to what we do and how we treat their names. In a book by Giovanni Guareshi, The Little World of Don Camillo a boxing match ensued between a priest and a communist when the latter decided to have his child baptized with the name Lenin Libero Antonio, after his nemesis Lenin. A name mispronounced in the middle of a speech can send alarm in the air. Ronald Reagan’s blunder in pronouncing the philosopher Camus as Caymus rather than Camu, was featured in Time Magazine. And sullying a good name can send the Mafia or a simple peasant scampering, ready for war. And to top all this name game thing, God forbade to have His name used without reverence. What’s in a name? Why is there so much fuss about a name? It’s just a name after all, or is it?
The name stands for the person. When William Shakespeare wrote “a rose by any other name smells as sweet,” may never have experienced being called in his lifetime Willie the Pig. But for most of us who have grown up being called names, most of which are undesirable, knew enough anger and embarrassment when our names were marred. Why? because it stands for our person. And not only that, names reveal, and even acquire our personalities. It never occurred to me for example that someone named Braulia would be so cute and beautiful until I met a real one. And to be called a pig, a bitch, or an ape, does not only reveal the ugly faces of these animals in us, but also accusingly reveals the attitude that goes with them. Nobody wants to be called names that demean our person. So no, it isn’t just a name, and called by any other name may not sound as sweet.
In the Bible things become more serious when it comes to names. For the Bible, names hold a special importance and power. When somebody gives a name to a person it means that he is putting his authority and power over that person. And so when somebody reveals his name to another it means that they have achieved a deeper level of intimacy, where one could entrust his person and his power to the person who knew and called him by name. Thus when God revealed His name He made Himself vulnerable to the people of Israel - a vulnerability which showed the depths of His love and trust. In a way He entrusted His person to the people He made a covenant with.
The book Catholic Faith Catechism also notes that names in the biblical world does not only stand for the person, but more so it makes the person “present and active.” “When the name of God was spoken, when God’s word was remembered, then God was really present and speaking through His remembered Word.” Thus for the people of the covenant the revelation of God’s name was God’s gift to His people and to swear falsely using God’s name, or using His name in vain was to break the covenant.
Considering this background, the origin of the phrase “name in vain” meant more than coarse and indecent language involving God’s name. Originally it meant using God’s name (which is equivalent to His presence) in sorcery, in oaths meant to deceive, in wishing others harm, and in invoking and claiming the power of God’s name to do evil. In short, it is trying to manipulate God to do evil to His people, to make Him serve our purposes by harming other people. This is contrary to the personality of God. Thus it is an insult to His name and to His person.
How could we live then the Second Commandment today?
The second commandment becomes applicable both as reverence for God’s Holy Name and respect for our fellowmen. Reverence for God includes taking our vows and promises seriously, and this includes our baptismal promises, our marriage or ordination vows. It means that in making promises such as these, one should not trivialize it or enter into it rashly. It should be thought of, prepared for and preserved. One should consider the promises to be made and consider the fact that these promises are made for life and involves consequences that affect our daily living. For example all of us made our baptismal promises and we renew it every Sunday when we recite the creed, and more solemnly on Easter Sunday when we are blessed by Holy Water in recollection of our baptism. But sadly many of us do not even know what our baptismal promises are. We have promised “to struggle with evil and all its works” but could we honestly say that we do in the many temptations that we face daily? Do we make an effort to avoid sin and to ward off temptation? In most cases we have taken for granted the vows we made to God. Added to these are the many cases of infidelity in marriage which stems from the fact that we do not take seriously the vows we utter in the sacrament.
Regarding respect for others, sometimes religion itself is misused. Sometimes through misinterpretation, it becomes a tool for frightening people with eternal punishment. Sometimes it becomes a palliative promising joy without substance or without heeding its demands. Thus there are many occasions of false piety, of hypocrisy and compartmentalization of our beliefs. In effect we become the only Christian nation in Asia yet at the same time the most corrupt.
When we were baptized, we started our Christian life “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Whenever we start our day, our prayers, our driving, our tests and any other activity we start it in the name of the father . . . . In a sense through this good practice we call upon God’s name, his presence to permeate all our actions, all our words and all our thoughts. Thus we are using the power which comes from His name so that we could live our lives in His presence. Sometimes however the opposite happens. Because of such practice we claim responsibility for giving God a bad name lately. Not to be outdone sometimes we manipulate the power of His name to pursue our selfish ends and motives which for most of the time inflict harm to other people. It may not be a curse or a slander but it has the same effect - we coerce God, we manipulate Him to side with us and to harm another for our own advantage or for religious cause. Today people kill in the name of God. In their defense of religion they call God on their side to exclude and condemn all others. Even in our community there are instances when organizations who thought so highly of themselves, have portrayed Christ as excluding all others.
We should revere God’s name as we too expect others to revere our name. We should live up to our name as Christians, as followers of Jesus in word, in deed and in our thoughts. May our actions speak of reverence on name of our Lord, “so that at Jesus’ name every knee must bend . . . and every tongue proclaim: Jesus Christ is Lord!”