Last week we explored the opening line, “Our Father in heaven.” For this next step on our journey through the Our Father, I would like for us to look at the next few lines, which really form a single unit.
…hallowed be your name
your Kingdom come,
your will be done,
as in heaven, so on earth.
Most people who have known me for any length of time will know that I hardly ever stop talking about my favourite film, Anne of Green Gables, based on the novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It’s the story of a young orphan from the east coast of Canada, set towards the end of the 19th century. After an early childhood spent passing through a series of abusive homes, Anne creates a sort of fantasy world to which she escapes with her imaginary window friend, and is full of creative imagination that goes on to inspire everybody who meets her.
There’ve been many screen adaptations of this story over the decades, each with its own merits, but by far my all-time favourite is the 1980s version with Megan Follows. This version best captures one of the early scenes, where Anne arrives at her new home on Prince Edward Island, where the stern spinster, Marilla, goes through the ordeal of one of the most complicated introductions to another person she has ever experienced. She makes the mistake of asking the young girl’s name.
“Will you please call me Cordelia?”, comes the reply. Marilla is immediately suspicious and demands to know whether this is the young girl’s real name, which is followed by a confession that her name is actually Anne, which isn’t anywhere near as glamorous as she would like, and that she far prefers Cordelia. She goes on to explain that she especially dislikes her name when people spell it simply as A-N-N, which she considers to be plain and boring. Eventually, after much rambling, the girl finally resigns herself to being called Anne, and as long as Marilla agrees to spell it with an ‘e’ on the end, Anne promises to try to reconcile herself to not being called Cordelia.
It’s a funny story and lays the groundwork for what is to come. No spoilers – watch the film.
But it also says something very real about the importance that we give to names. Our names are very intimate and personal as a core part of our identity, and what we are called matters to us. If people forget our name, or if they call us by a variation of our name that we don’t like, we sometimes get offended.
We also don’t just share our names with everybody we see in the street, and when we do meet a new person we are introduced to them not by our occupation, or our religion, or any of the other facts about ourselves that people might find interesting; we are introduced by name. It is the primary way that we get to identify a person.
The same is true of God. In the ancient world of multiple religions, where people believed in many false gods, and worshipped idols, if people were told that god had required something of them, their first demand was “Which god? What is his name?” We hear this in the 3rd chapter of the Book of Exodus, when Moses goes up to Mount Horeb, and sees the bush engulfed in flames but without being burnt. He hears the voice commanding him to remove his shoes, for he was standing on holy ground, in the presence of God, Who immediately identified himself as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. God is relating to Moses here in a personal way, identifying Himself as the God who had been integral to the life of Moses’ ancestors.
God tells Moses that He has heard the cry of his people, enslaved in Egypt, and wants Moses to set them free. Moses is keenly aware of his unworthiness and lack of importance, and is also aware that after 600 years of slavery, the people of Israel have forgotten their god. So he asks God, ‘When I go to the children of Israel, and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I tell them?’
Over the centuries, a considerable amount of ink has been poured out over the reply that God gives, for He reveals his name to Moses: He says a word that means I am the I AM, or it could be translated as I am the One Who Is. What does it mean? Well, it could refer to the God Who Is in reality – i.e. the God who actually exists, as opposed to the many false ideas of god and idols that were known in the world at the time, and still are today. However, in semitic languages, verbs take a number of forms, one of which is causative. So I am the I AM could also be read as I cause to be what I cause to be – that is, God is revealing Himself to Moses here as the Creator – the One Who brings everything from non-existence into being. There are various possible meanings to this, and all of them apply to God.
What is important here is that God is revealing Himself intimately not as a distant sovereign God but a God Who is to be known to his people by name. Out of reverence, the divine name ever since then has been considered to be so sacred that no human being is worthy to speak it, and for this reason, the tradition has been maintained of printing it without vowels, so that it can never be pronounced.
In our alphabet, the consonants that we use are YHWH. Some scholars have tried to reconstruct what the pronunciation would have been, with varying results, but we do not use this in the Church. When reading aloud from scripture, our Jewish friends still do not speak the divine name, but wherever it occurs, they replace it with the word Adonai. In English, our bibles generally say LORD.
But our tradition is common to Jew and Christian alike. This God revealed Himself to his people by name, and that name is to be kept holy. This is partly what we mean when we pray the words “hallowed be your name”. The church fathers and all of the liturgical texts of the Church are united in agreeing that the Old Testament appearances of God are in fact God the Son. It is a common misconception in some Christian circles that they are the Father, but this is not the ancient Christian Tradition. From what has been revealed to us in Scripture about the way in which the different Persons interact with creation for the purpose of our salvation, it is the Son – the Second Person of the Trinity – Who makes direct, personal contact with us, culminating most of all in his Incarnation, when He was born, and took flesh, and actually became human like us.
This is why the icon of the burning bush is venerated as a prototype of Mary, the Most Holy Mother of God. For, like the bush, she contained the presence of the Son of God, and like the bush, she was not consumed despite having within her what all reason says is impossible for anything created to contain.
And she gave birth to Him, and gave him the name Jesus, which means Saviour, for again He came to save his people, this time not from slavery to an Egyptian Pharaoh but rather from slavery to sin and death.
And that name of Jesus is also to be kept holy. In chapter 8 of St John’s Gospel, we see the Saviour telling the Jewish crowds of the relationship that existed in ancient times between Himself and their ancestor Abraham. They asked how he could have possibly have seen Abraham from centuries ago, and he replied “Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM”. Not only did He say the unspeakable name of God – which by that point in Jewish culture was a punishable offence, as anybody who has ever seen The Life of Brian will know – but He used it to refer to Himself. He was identifying Himself as the same God Who revealed Himself to Moses in the bush all those centuries before. His audience responded by picking up stones to throw at Him, as He ran off and disappeared into the crowd.
In chapter 2 of his letter to the Church at Philippi, St Paul writes:
God has highly exalted Him, and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on the earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2: 9-11
In the Roman rite within our Orthodox Church, there is a tradition that has also lived on in many parts of the Catholic and Anglican churches, which is that, when the name Jesus is mentioned in worship – whether in a prayer or a hymn or an antiphon – the faithful people bow their heads. While this is not part of our Orthodox devotions, in the late mediaeval Catholic church, a new feast day was introduced into the calendar which still remains today: the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. We have a very grand Catholic church here in Manchester, on Oxford Road, named in honour of this feast.
In our Gallican rite, we don’t have the tradition of bowing at the name of Jesus but we do keep the custom that is common to all Orthodox and Catholic Christians, which is that we try not to overuse the name of the Lord. Even when we’re talking about Him in a religious context, we tend to refer to the Lord, or the Saviour, as a way of avoiding using the holy name of Jesus in a casual way. This is why it’s so extremely offensive when we hear people say “Jesus Christ” in the way that is often done by many people in our society who do not believe in the Saviour. Even if they are not Christians, we might think that basic good manners would prevent them from taking a name that they know is sacred in somebody else’s religion, and using it in front of that person in a profane and disrespectful way, but we would be wrong.
So instead, as we say in the prayer of St Ephraim, which we pray throughout Lent, we mustn’t focus on the failings of others but turn our minds to our own actions. We say with our lips ‘hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done’, but how do our actions reflect this? Do we prioritise the worship of God over everything else? Do we say our daily prayers and deepen our communion with God? Do we keep the fasts? Do we treat others with love?
When we become Orthodox Christians – whether by baptism or by Chrismation – we fully enter into the life of the Church, and we begin this new life by taking a new name. For some people who already have a saint’s name, they simply renew that name, while others prefer to take a new one. That is the name by which we are known in the household of God, the Church. It is the name by which we are prayed for, and the name by which we are called by God when He feeds us with his Body and Blood in Communion. It’s the name of encounter with the divine.
I took the name of Cyprian, after St Cyprian of Carthage, but it is only recently that I have begun to use it outside of Church and in my daily life. And now that this Christian name that I have been given as a member of the household of God is a name that I use with friends, and at work, and wherever I go, I am constantly having to think of the things I do and say, and the way I treat others around me, and how this reflects on my life in Christ. In the eyes of the world. I say, ‘hallowed be your name’ but am I keeping holy the name of God? I say ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’, but are my actions bringing about the Kingdom? Are my actions in keeping with the will of God? These are the questions that we must ask ourselves on a daily basis, but most especially in this penitential season of Lent. That way we can know that the name of our saint that we bear, and the name of Christ which is imprinted on our souls when we receive baptism, is reflected in what others experience when they come into contact with us.
In closing, I’ll leave you with one more pearl of wisdom from Anne, the young orphan of Green Gables, who had read something from William Shakespeare, and had the following to say about the importance of names:
I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.Anne Shirley