Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

What's in a name?

by Dr. Michael P. Foley


In this article Michael P. Foley explains the rationale for the visible veneration of the divine names of God the Father and Jesus.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, November 2001

Of the various revisions made in the new General Instructions of the Roman Missal, one rubric is noteworthy not because it was changed, but because it was left unchanged. Affirming an age-old tradition, Number 275a states that "a bow of the head is to be made . . . at the name of Jesus."1 For those of us whose grasp of the liturgy has been shaped by recent experience, this requirement will no doubt come as a surprise. Visible veneration of the holy name of Jesus, once the focal point of so much medieval and Counter-Reformation piety, has clearly become something honored more in the breach than in the observance. With the Congregation for Divine Worship becoming in some respects less beholden to precedent, one may wonder why it would even bother to retain the stipulation. After all, having a devotion to the Holy Name strikes many practicing Catholics as antiquated or bizarre, perhaps even a little superstitious.

What, then, is the rationale for such a veneration, and why should we revere a number of syllables, a set of sounds? Certainly the name of the Lord is praised in the Bible, in the writings of the Church Fathers and of the saints, and in the Christian tradition at large, but this only begs the question of why something as seemingly superficial as a name is reckoned to have such power and to command such respect. And so to borrow a line from Juliet as she contemplates Romeo's identity as a Montague,2 we are forced to ask ourselves, "What's in a name?"

God, man, and the dynamics of naming

Answering this question, I believe, necessitates a reexamination of our everyday assumptions about names and about language itself. Language is generally understood as an arrangement of sounds or letters agreed upon by a group of people to have a certain meaning. Words are important, but they are also undeniably artificial or conventional, and they are also more often than not inadequate in conveying what we really mean. That is why we often have more than one word for the same object or action; or why we need so many adjectives and adverbs to qualify our statements; or why there is so much specialized terminology for different areas of life and thought: for science, business, sports, religion, and so on.

This common sense understanding of nomenclature is corroborated but also qualified by the Scriptures. With its story of the use and abuse, or better yet, the rise and fall of names, the Book of Genesis provides a fascinating account of the primal potential and subsequent decay of words. The story begins with God's naming parts of his creation, such as the day, the night, the firmament, and so on (Gen. 1:3ff). This is a special kind of naming, taking place outside of the normal boundaries of space and time and without bodily tongue or voice. The naming here seems to suggest that God was bestowing on each thing a meaning, an intelligibility, an inner coherence. The divinely given name of each thing, in other words, was its essence, its true and proper nature or identity. This divine naming, in turn, provides the ground for the human naming that takes place later on. When God has Adam name the beasts, the text states that "whatsoever Adam called any living creature, the same is its name" (Gen. 2:19).3 This peculiar phrasing suggests that Adam did not assign them a name arbitrarily or voluntaristically, as is commonly supposed, but that he correctly identified their "natural" or God-given name. As a perfect man untainted by any debilitation of sin, Adam knew the creatures by their essences; he knew them in a way which, even with all of our scientific learning, we can only envy. And his knowing their essences enabled him to utter their true names.

Man in the Garden of Eden was thus, for lack of a better expression, a "super namer," someone with the ability to hit the noetic nail on the head every time. This lucidity, however, was substantially damaged by original sin. The Fall dimmed the light of the human mind by which Adam was able to identify names so effectively.4 Naming, east of Eden, is no longer animated by a desire to know but tends to reflect the opposite impulse, a hostility to wisdom and a lust for power. Or put differently, naming is now used as a way of becoming godlike in an ungodly manner. "Cain" is the first name to reflect this new set of priorities. When he is born, Eve proudly proclaims, "I have gotten a man with the LORD" (4:1). Cain is named after the word Eve uses for "gotten," cayen; he is not named in honor of the Lord's help because Eve is emphasizing her ability to create, or be-get a man, just like God. Cain, in turn, names the city he founds after his son, Enoch, because Cain is seeking a sort of divine immortality through his posterity and through being the founder of a nation. So, too, is the populace at the time of Babel, who gather together when the "earth is [still] of one tongue and of the same speech" (11:1), and say to each other, "come, let us make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven; and let us make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands" (11:3, 4). And so they begin to build the Tower of Babel to reach the perfection of heaven on their own, embarking on the most ambitious building project recorded in the Bible.

Man's perverse naming, however, has inevitably ironic results. Eve names her son after "getting," only to see her son become a rapacious taker of his brother's life. Cain names his city after his son in order to live through his founding, but every one of his urban descendants is wiped out by the Flood. And the people of Babel build a tower to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered, only to have their names become unintelligible even to each other and to be scattered precisely because of their haughty scheme. In each case man's action brings about the very thing he was trying to avoid; in each case their proud act of naming boomerangs, making them worse off than before.

Because this pathetic pattern of disobedience only ends up disfiguring the divine image in which humankind is made, rendering them ever more wretched, God takes pity on his fallen creatures and on his own initiates a second trajectory of naming. God first does this with Abram, whom he calls out from the land of Ur to become the father of a great nation, and thus changes his name to Abraham, which means, "Father of the multitude" (Gen. 17:5).5 Renaming shows precisely how God is consecrating an individual for his use. Jacob becomes Israel (Gen. 32:28, 35:10), "he who strives with God" (a perfect label for the tumultuous affair between God and His chosen people), Simon becomes Peter, the "rock," or petrus, on which the Church is built (Matt. 16:18), and so on. This renaming even extends to the redeemed in general (hence the Christian custom of baptismal and confirmation names). God promises to his elect that he will give "them a name better than sons and daughters"; he "will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:5).

The divine name

But the most important name that God gives is his own. This revelation happens only after a considerable amount of time. Adam, even before the Fall, did not name God for he could only name what he understood and not even when he was sinless could he understand God's essence. The same obtains for succeeding characters in the Bible, even those figures, such as Noah or Abraham, with whom God had entered into a covenant. The situation does not change noticeably until the Lord appears to Moses in the famous burning bush on Mt. Sinai,6 and says:

I AM WHO AM. He said, Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS hath sent you. And God said again to Moses: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me to you: This is my name forever, and this is my memorial unto all generations (Exod. 3:14,15).

Thus we know that the name of the Lord is "YHWH," which comes from the Hebrew verb "to be" and may be safely translated, "He who is." The name is considered so sacred that devout Jews will not pronounce it but will utter the word "Adonai," or "Lord," in its stead. The Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, written three centuries before the birth of Christ, adheres to this Hebrew convention by not including the name at all but substituting for it the word "Lord" (often capitalized in English editions), a pious rendering which even today the Catholic Church states should be maintained in all contemporary liturgical translations.7 Such reticence hearkens back to an ancient, nonbiblical tradition that the name of God was only pronounced on the Day of Atonement by the High Priest, the one day of the year when he entered the Holy of Holies, the chamber where the ark of the covenant was kept. With his head covered in a miter that had inscribed on it in gold the four letters of the holy name, he would pass through the veil that closed off this sacred space, and with his hands dripping in the blood of bulls and goats, he would make an offering for the remission of the sins of the people. On that day, when the High Priest pronounced the name, the multitude who heard it would fall to their knees and prostrate themselves on the ground. In fact, though we often add the vowels "a" and "e" to the four consonants YHWH (known as the tetragrammaton) to make the word "Yahweh," no one is really certain how the name was pronounced. Only the Levitical priests used it, and so when that priesthood died out after the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, so, too, did firsthand knowledge of the name.

The holy name YHWH is significant because it sheds light on God's true nature. "I am who am" or "He who is" might not sound very descriptive, but that is precisely the point. God is so ineffable, so excellent, that he surpasses our ability to comprehend him. What the name does tell us is that God exists, purely and absolutely. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this by saying that God's essence equals his existence (cf. Summa Theologiæ I.3.4, I.13.11). What he means in part by this statement is that God is such that his essence or nature is not modified or qualified by any attributes; he is absolute, unlimited being. Ironically, God's essence is incomprehensible to man, not because it is so complicated but because it is so simple. Chesterton tells the story of a lady who read Aquinas' treatise on divine simplicity, put it down with a sigh, and said, "Well, if that's his simplicity, I wonder what his complexity is like."8 Such a reaction is natural because our minds are accustomed to grasping small, fragmented pieces of the whole, but they are not geared in this life to comprehend the primal ground of all being.

And so, if God is to be accurately known by human creatures, it is God who must tell us who he is. God's name, of course, does not enable us to understand His essence, but it does enable us to identify it, and that is why it is so important. As the drama of naming in the Old Testament makes clear, sin is an attempt to name however one pleases, to render oneself God. (Think of the tendency in our own times to rename immoral acts so that they no longer carry negative connotations.) God's revealing his holy name definitively reminds man that he is not God: as YHWH says on Mount Sinai, his name "is a memorial unto all generations," a testimony to the reality of His existence. The divine name is thus, among other things, a corrective to bad human naming and a re-directing of our attention away from a will to power back towards the true God. With its hint of God's true essence, the holy name YHWH is a call to return to that pristine naming before the Fall, when names were yoked to a desire to know, to an exultation in the wonder of God and His created order, and when they had nothing to do with the vain attempt to impose one's own order upon things. The holy name is a call to conversion.

"YHWH is salvation"

And so it remained for several hundred years until an angel named Gabriel appeared one day to a girl named Mary and told her that she would bear the Son of God. Gabriel's announcement was tremendous. He was in effect saying that the God of pure existence and absolute being, the God who suffers neither change nor shadow of alteration, was somehow taking on human flesh, entering our fallen world by being born of woman. The unimaginable God was now to be visible and tangible and standing among us, and, what is more, he was coming to save us from our sins, to deliver us decisively from our twisted aversion to the good. Thus, by order of the Deity, Gabriel tells Mary that her son will be named Jesus, which is Hebrew for "Yahweh is salvation."

The name "Jesus" is significant for two reasons. First, it suggests that the mysterious YHWH of the Old Testament was not simply God, but God the Son. Now of course, the holy name YHWH most properly pertains to God in His undivided unity, and as such could also apply by extension to any of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Nevertheless, both Scripture and tradition seem to imply that the Tetragrammaton has a special affinity with the Son.9 Christ shocks a Jewish audience, for example, by asserting, "Amen, Amen, I say to you: before Abraham was made, I am" (John 8:58), a statement His listeners rightly take as a claim to be the selfsame God who revealed His name to Moses. The identification of YHWH and Jesus is also hinted at in an oral tradition which holds that the species of bush in which YHWH appeared, the rhamnus, was also used to make the crown of thorns. The same association is emphasized in one of the so-called "Great" or "O" antiphons for the Vespers Magnificat in the week before Christmas:

O Adonai, leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm (December 18).

The antiphon, which is addressing the Divine Person who appeared to Moses, is clearly addressing God the Son, since it is he who comes to us on Christmas Day. (It is also significant that this Divine Person is addressed as "Adonai," the traditional Hebrew substitute for YHWH.) The appropriation of the Tetragrammaton to the Son of God, incidentally, illuminates the meaning of decking the halls with boughs of holly during Christmastide. The prickly leaves and red berries of holly remind us of the crown of thorns and drops of blood from our Lord's Passion, but they are also supposed to recall the thorny bush and the reddish fire in which YHWH once appeared.10 The point seems to be that in order to know who this Infant in the manger is, one must look forward to his saving action on the Cross, and one must also look backward to his revelation to Moses centuries earlier. The implication is clear: Jesus is YHWH incarnate, and YHWH is at least in some sense the Son before He becomes incarnate.

Second, the name Jesus designates him as a savior. In the Gospel of Matthew, the angel tells Joseph that the boy's name will be Jesus because "he shall save his people from their sins" (1:21, emphasis added). Jesus' name is explained in terms of its salvific associations, with all of the other names given to him in the Old and New Testaments hinging on this central fact. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, the names ascribed to Christ, such as Emmanuel, Prince of Peace, and Wonder-Counselor, all signify some aspect of our salvation as it was wrought by him, be it the cause of salvation, the method, the result, and so on (ST III.37.2). The holy name is so linked to the notion of salvation that it is even said to be written on the foreheads of those who are saved. In the Book of Revelation, the Lamb of God tells the apostle John, "I will write upon [the elect] the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which cometh down out of heaven from my God, and my new name" (3:12).

The banality of "Jesus"?

But if the name of Jesus is in some ways the heir apparent of the name YHWH, why is it not accorded the same kind of veneration? "Jesus" can be pronounced by anyone at anytime and it is anything but unique. It was first used centuries before the Annunciation with Moses' successor, Joshua, or Yehoshua, which is the Hebrew form of "Jesus." And the name continued to be used afterwards, not just for notable persons, but for relatively insignificant ones as well: a lesser known ancestor of Christ, for example, bore the name (Luke 3:29). Moreover, around the time that Christ was born, "Jesus" was a common name for men, either in its Aramaic form (Yeshu) or in the Greek (Iesous); and in fact it remains a popular choice for baby boys in Arabic and Spanish speaking countries today.

There are, in my opinion, two reasons for this change in the mode of adoration. The first ties into a substantial difference between the names YHWH and Jesus. "YHWH," as I have argued, may in some respect connote the Word, but "Jesus" denotes the Word made flesh, God Incarnate. And it hardly needs mentioning that the Incarnation initiates a new dispensation in the economy of our salvation. Before the Incarnation, for example, no images of God were allowed because God was a spirit who could not be imagined (Exod. 20:35). But once God became man, images (or in the Greek, ikons) of him proliferated soon after for the simple reason that human eyes could now see, in the person of Jesus Christ, the image of the Father. Something similar obtains with the names of God: the name of the supreme deity was, and to an important extent still is, ineffable,11 but the new name of the incarnate God can be piously invoked by all.

That said, however, it is interesting to note that there is an unwritten custom among Catholics to prefer the term "Christ" or "our Lord" when speaking of the Son of God. This custom stands in contrast to that of Protestant congregations, some of which tend to use the name "Jesus" almost exclusively. (I know of a Pentecostal church in southern California where the members greet each other on the Feast of the Nativity with the words, "Merry Jesusmas!" My guess is that they do not know that the "mas" in "Christmas" refers to the Mass, and that they are therefore honoring the Roman Catholic Eucharistic liturgy.) In any case, the difference in Catholic and Protestant usage is significant. While I am certainly not suggesting that Protestant Christians are blaspheming by being profligate with the name Jesus, I am suggesting that Catholic reticence regarding the holy name hearkens back to the ancient and salubrious veneration accorded to the tetragrammation. In keeping this custom, Catholics may be prudently avoiding the kind of familiarity that could easily lose sight of their incarnate Lord's transcendent character.12

The second reason for the different use of the holy name of Jesus is that its significance or power lies not in what it is but in what it points to. This is the crucial difference between magic and superstition on the one hand and Catholic faith on the other. With the former, the power of the words is in the words themselves: it is the sound of "abracadabra" that is supposed to produce the rabbit from the hat. But with Catholic practice the significance of words is in what the words signify. That is why the name Jesus can be pronounced and spelled in a great number of ways without losing any of its effect, and that it can even be used to designate men who are not the Savior without diminishing the identity of the One who is. The only thing that matters is that when the name is used piously, it is used to point to the one, unique person who was crucified on the hills of Palestine 2,000 years ago. In the words of Colvenerius: We give honour to the Name of Jesus, not because we believe there is any intrinsic power hidden in the letters composing it, but because the Name of Jesus reminds us of all the blessings we receive through our Holy Redeemer. To give thanks for these blessings we revere the Holy Name, [just] as we honour the Passion of Christ by honouring His Cross.13

Significantly, this peculiar, self-negating quality of the holy name is attested in the most famous New Testament passage praising it:

[Christ] humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names: That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (Phil. 2.8-10).

When St. Paul writes that God gave Christ "the name which is above all names," he does not say the holy name is above "every other name" but that it is "above every name," including, presumably, itself (cf. Eph. 1:21). The name that God gave Christ, in other words, somehow transcends itself in a way that other words do not.

This, of course, does not mean that naming is unimportant. Quite the contrary, names are crucial in properly identifying and designating things. Such is why, for example, the historic apostolic churches each have their own sacred language: the Roman Church has ecclesiastical Latin, the Greeks have Byzantine Greek, the Armenians have classical Armenian, and so on. Traditional and orthodox Christians do not preserve these sacred languages because they believe that there is a power or even a superiority to a particular tongue. If they believed this, they would not have moved away from Hebrew or Koine Greek in the first place but would have become similar to Muslims, who consider it impious to translate the Qur'an from its original Arabic. But Christians did fashion sacred languages in order to exert a tighter control over the meaning of words so that the words would more efficiently and accurately point to the divine realities they were trying to communicate. That is one of the reasons why so-called "dead" languages were considered ideal: once a language is no longer used frequently, the meaning of its words is less likely to undergo change, thereby minimizing ground for confusion or misinterpretation.

I mention sacred languages only as a way of showing how we can answer one of our initial questions, why we venerate a set of syllables. The answer is that we do not. We venerate the meaning of the name of Jesus, not its letters or its sounds, and if we do pay homage to those things, it is only derivatively, because as Catholics we recognize in a sober and rational way the great utility of physical or sensible things as mnemonic devices for spiritual realities. (Remember that both the names YHWH and Jesus are described as "memorials," reminders of who God is and what he has done for us.) It is this sober recognition of the function of names, incidentally, which undergirds our opposition to blasphemy. If the holy name is a signpost to the true God, then blasphemy is graffiti on a divine sign. By taking the name in vain, blasphemy mocks its efficacy; it insinuates that the name does not in fact point to the reality to which it is claiming. Blasphemy is thus the defacing and belittling of a marker crucial for designating the path to salvation.

And so, in response to the question, "What's in a name?" we are forced to reply, "nothing and everything." On the one hand names are conventions of sound and scribble with no real virtue of their own. On the other hand, they are practically indispensable signposts to reality. And this is especially the case when that signpost is crafted by God to point to God, as it is in the name of Jesus; when this happens, the very memory of the person evokes the fullness of His reality. That is why the holy name of Jesus effects such miracles, as in the days when Sts. Bernardine of Siena and John Capistran carried a placard of it through the streets and cured hundreds. That is why it should be venerated with bowed heads within the mystic walls of sacred liturgy and without. And that is why Pope Pius XII, amidst the ravages of the Second World War, could declare so eloquently:

The grandeur of Thy name, O Jesus, went before, accompanied, and followed Thy coming upon earth. From eternity the Father carried that name written in golden letters in His mind, and at the dawn of creation angelic harps intoned a hymn of praise to it, and the holy men of old greeted it from afar with a joyous heart-beat of hope. At its first echoes in the universe, the heavens opened, earth breathed again, and hell trembled. Its history records nothing but triumphs. For twenty centuries it has been the watch-word of true believers, who have always found in it, and will continue to find therein, the inspiration and the impelling power to reach the most exalted heights of virtue. It will ever be the sweetest name of all; it was spoken over Thy manger and inscribed upon the Cross; and through all the years it will bring to man's remembrance Him who loved us even unto death.14

This article was originally presented in the Francis X. Weiser Lecture Series of the Holy Name Society at Holy Trinity German Church, Boston, on October 1, 2000. It has since been revised for publication.


  1. GIRM 1975 (234a) & 2000 (275a). The full prescription requires a bow to be made "when the Divine Persons are named together, and at the name of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated."
  2. Romeo & Juliet, II.ii.43.
  3. I am using the Douay-Rheims translation because it retains here the deliberate ambiguity of the Hebrew.
  4. This obnubilation of the intellect seems to have taken place gradually, with men and women living off an ever diminishing residue of Adam's perfection. The Hebrew names in the early part of the Bible, for example, are quite accurate in denoting the essence of the person named. Esau really was hairy, as his name implies, and Jacob really was a "supplanter." But just as the human life span begins to grow shorter as time goes on, so too do the names become less descriptive. They also begin to become more redundant, with several people having the same or similar names. All of this is indicative of man's intellectual decline, his waning ability to know things as they truly are the more that sin infects his mind and his society.
  5. Abraham's wife Sarai becomes Sarah, the "Princess" of the new nation, because from one of her sons "kings shall spring" (Gen. 17:16).
  6. The major difficulty with this interpretation is that the holy name of God appears approximately one hundred fifty nine times in the Biblical narrative before it is ostensibly revealed to Moses for the first time on Mt. Sinai. The name is used not only by God or the omniscient narrator of the story, but by virtually every type of character therein: Eve, Lamech, Sarah and Hagar, each of the Patriarchs, etc. This widespread familiarity with the name makes unlikely the possibility that the narrator is being merely proleptic. The problem is compounded by the fact that God tells Moses in Exodus 6:3 that He did not, despite many counterexamples, appear to the Patriarchs "by [His] name YHWH." Based on a close analysis of the Sinai theophany in Exodus 3:14,15 (where the name is disclosed under three different forms), the solution seems to be that God reveals for the first time the full meaning of His name to Moses and that prior to this event, humankind labored under a partial, nominalist grasp of the moniker.
  7. Q.v. Liturgiam Authenticam 41c: "In accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the above-mentioned 'Septuagint' version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH) and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning." This clause thus marks a triumph of sorts for Catholic opponents of the word "Yahweh" who consider its public use insulting and insensitive to practicing Jews. Judging, however, from the wording of the document, there seems to be a theological dimension to the decree distinct from the prerogatives of interfaith courtesy. It is this theological dimension that merits further exploration, for it suggests that even the full revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ and two thousand years of subsequent doctrinal development do not abrogate the basic hiddenness and incomprehensibility of the divine. By this reckoning, "YHWH" remains a perennial testimony to God' transcendence, even after the Incarnation.
  8. St. Thomas Aquinas "The Dumb Ox," Introductory Note (NY: Image Books, 1956), p. 12.
  9. Significantly, Church Fathers like Tertullian deny that YHWH is the name of the Father (cf. De oratione 3).
  10. Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Handbook of Christian Customs (NY: Harcourt, 1958), p. 104.
  11. Cf. footnote 7 above.
  12. It is not coincidental that devotion to the holy name of Jesus developed in response to the Albigensian heresy of the 12th and 13th centuries, which denied the humanity of Christ. This is only appropriate, for "Jesus," as we have been arguing, denotes YHWH made man. This devotion (and the many invocations and ejaculations of the holy name that go with it) in no way contradicts the older Catholic reticence, precisely because the name is still being used predominantly for sacred purposes, i.e., it is not the first name Catholics tend to use when speaking of Christ in general conversation.
  13. De festo SS Nominis, ix.
  14. The Raccolta, §129 (1950).

Dr. Michael P. Foley is currently teaching in the University of Notre Dame Theology Department. He received his doctorate in Systematic Theology from Boston College in 1999. He is co-editor of (and a contributor to) Gladly to Learn, Gladly to Teach: Essays on Religion and Political Philosophy in Honor of Ernest L. Fortin, A.A. (Lexington Books, 2001). Additional articles of his have appeared in First Things and Revue des ètudes augustiniennes. This is his first article in HPR.

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