Beginning a series of reflections on the meaning of
the Lord’s Prayer, Geoffrey Kirk asks: What’s in a name?
OUR FATHER who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
How are we to name God? In a Communion where liturgies are now routinely composed which avoid the sublime language of his Trinitarian Names, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (and names unspoken in scripture and unheard in the tradition are substituted for them), the question is not merely academic.
In the Paternoster, Jesus names his Father; God names God.
The naming of God is what hallows (sets apart) the Christian community – which is precisely the community in which God’s Name is held in remembrance. (‘Teach us how to pray, as John taught his disciples’. He said to them: ‘Pray like this…’ [Lk.11; 1-2] Go baptize all the nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ [Matt 28:19-20]). That Name, moreover is not general and analogical (‘Father-like he tends and spares us’); but direct and particular (‘Abba’, ‘Daddy’). Grammarians point out that ‘father’ or ‘mother’, addressed by the child to the parent, function not as adjectives, nor even as nouns, but as proper names. God reveals to us, in all its intimacy, the proper name of God: he is ‘Our Father’.
But God’s revelation of himself, though perfect and complete in its own moment, is nevertheless to be understood as part of a story. The God whose Name Jesus reveals is a God who has a history. Names and naming are a part of it. In the beginning…God named Day and Night, Heaven and Earth and the Seas. And he named Man. The naming and the creating, in the story, are one gesture; for to create is to own, and to name is to have dominion over.
God does not name the animals. He brings them to Adam, and Adam names them. Adam, in consequence, has dominion over them; but dominion is lonely. So God creates Eve, whom Adam also names. Adam gives Eve, not a noun, but a proper name; for ‘she is flesh of his flesh’. The first proper name in all creation creates a new category of relationship, one both of deference and equality. (Ephesians 5) The ‘I’ has met the ‘Thou’.
In the intimacy of the Garden, God was known by name. Yahweh-God walked with man, in the cool of the evening. He ‘…as with his own friend, familiar used / To sit indulgent, and with him partake / Rural repast, permitting him the while / Venial discourse unblamed…’ [Milton, PL, Bk IX, ll 3-5]
Intimacy, however, is not the only theme of Genesis. The priestly account of creation, with which our text begins, is altogether more remote and philosophical. The God of Genesis 1, who creates worlds by the word of his power, can seem very far from the God of Genesis 2, who moulds dolls out of mud.
It is sometimes assumed that the more recent narrative supersedes and replaces the other, in a sort of theological version of progress or evolution. But the truth is very different. Both are perennial aspects of the paradox of God who is both immanent and transcendent. When we lose a sense of the one we are blinded to the significance of the other. The Fall (if indeed it can be located historically at all) must, then, have occurred sometime between the recitation of the Yahwistic narrative and the recording of the Priestly history: For then it was that God lost his Name and became a noun.
But the Name was not so much lost as submerged. In the ensuing narrative the Name is the game.
Abram (‘high father’) is called and renamed Abraham (‘father of a multitude’) at the moment when the covenant is sealed. Jacob (‘he who supplants or undermines’) wrests the succession from Esau (‘the action man’), and wrestling with God for the revelation of the divine Name, is himself renamed Israel (‘he who contends with God’).
This God who confirms his covenant by the giving of names (and so is, in a peculiar and particular sense, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) finally confides to Moses the intimacy of the Name [Exod. 3:14] He reveals himself to Moses as to Adam. (‘Yahweh would speak with Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend’ [Exod. 33:11]).
But as though further to demonstrate that the distinctions of intimacy with God which mark out the two creation narratives (‘J’ and ‘P’) are not merely cultural or historical but perennial, Exodus 33 goes on to detail the directions for the establishment of the cultus and the disposition of the Temple.
In the Temple the debir was ring-fenced against profanity, as clearly as Sinai needed to be fenced off to protect the Israelites from the consuming holiness of God [Exod. 19: 12]. Logically and inevitably, the Name came to be denied to the lips of those who worshipped in the Temple, and unspoken in its courts, save for one day of the liturgical year.
We do not know precisely when the uttering of the divine Name became an offence (and latterly a capital offence) among Jews. It seems to have fallen silent around 300 BC. Its prohibition, however is a part of the essential background of the New Testament writers, in whose day (until AD71) it was used only by the High Priest on the day of Atonement. (Mishnah, Yom 3.8n; 6.2; Tam 3.8). He used it then with its proper vocalisation. The custom had arisen in other circumstances to substitute the vowels of Adonai (= kyrios; dominus) for those of YHWH (=Yahweh?).
Mark and John (gospels more intimately related structurally and theologically than many modern analyses allow) differ from each other radically in the matter of naming.
Mark is reticent in giving Jesus any divine title. Jesus (‘Jah saves’) is in Mark ‘son of man’ (a handy-dandy term which is either technical apocalyptic or Aramaic commonplace: ‘the Son of Man’, or ‘any mother’s son’, as the reader chooses and decides).
John is more pro-active. The divine Name (ego eimi, ‘I am’) is at the heart of his Christology and provides the hinge of his plot.
At the very beginning of the Gospel, John the Baptist explicitly repudiates the Name (‘I am not’ [Jn 1:20]). Not so Jesus: to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, beside Mount Gerizim, he declares ‘I am the one’ [Jn 4:26]. In the Jerusalem temple, at the Feast of the Tabernacles he preaches to the Jews: ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ [Jn 8:58]. They take up stones to stone him – the prescribed punishment for the profanation of the Name. ‘I and the Father are one’ he proclaims on the Feast of the Dedication, and again they take up stones.
‘Ego eimi’ he tells them time and again, each time adding a qualifying predicate (the light of the world…the bread of life …the good shepherd…the true vine) until he has run out of predicates and is exhausted with the game of theological catch-as-catch-can. Then they find him in the Garden on the evening of before the final Passover. ‘Whom do you seek?’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth. ”Ego eimi.’ The great High Priest names himself as God and so offers himself to be the scapegoat . It is precisely the naming, and the claim of identity with God, which is the accusation against him. ‘We have a law and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself Son of God.’ [Jn 19:7]
The self-naming brings death; but through faith and baptism it also brings life. The whole gospel, we learn from its last sentence, was intended as a paean to the power of the Name: ‘these things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life through his Name.’ [Jn 20:31]. It is appropriate, then, that the one who names himself as God begins his new covenant with man by acts of naming. He founds the Church on Simon, whom he names Cephas (‘rock’) and he reveals the resurrection, in an instant, when he names Mary (‘bitterness’), so turning her mourning into joy, and herself into the apostola apostolorum.
The Trinitarian name of God, then, has its origins in the mystery of the Jesus who names himself ego eimi, and names God as his Father. He shares with the Church, his Body, the intimacy of that name. ‘Father’ is the proper name of God, returned to the people of God. The veil of the Temple has been torn down; the Holy of Holies stands open to human gaze; ‘Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father’. [Jn 14: 9]
Two things especially in the worship of the Church express and guarantee the Nicene orthodoxy: the Father’s name and the Lord’s image. Whenever they are repudiated or fall into disuse, the doctrine of the Incarnation itself is endangered.
Athanasius, in his debate with Arianism, had early to counter a philosophical understanding of God which defined him as self-sufficient in his transcendent reality, and plainly distinguished from the contingent creation. Not for the erudite Arians the misleading anthropomorphic and metaphorical terminology of the Bible! They termed God, not Father, but ‘unoriginate’; and supposed that to be a truer and clearer name and definition. Athanasius could not have disagreed more profoundly:
‘…it is more pious and more accurate, he writes, to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name him from his works only and call him Unoriginate. For the latter title does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word: but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son’.
It is true, Athanasius is saying, that one can, after a fashion, know the playwright through his plays – and one can reliably conclude that he himself is more than the sum of all the characters he has created. But that is not our mode of knowing God through the Son. In Christ the playwright has stepped into the play. In Jesus we have a way of knowing the Father which is both intimate and ontological. He is homoousios with the Father.
The same profound Nicene insight lay at the heart of the defence of icons mounted by St Theodore, the eighth century abbot of the monastery of Studios in Constantinople. In Jesus, he said, ‘the One who is invisible becomes visible’.
Like some modern day feminists and their supporters, the iconoclasts maintained that, in Jesus, God had taken on a human nature which was not particularized or characterized; humanity in general, not its individual expression in a particular human being. Theodore robustly maintained otherwise. Jesus was an individual man – as individual and ‘characterized’ as Peter, James and John.
All the arguments of the Arians and the Iconoclasts were said to be in defence of the transcendence of God. If so, it was a noble aim: such a defence is profoundly scriptural. (‘Take off your shoes, for you are treading on holy ground’ [Exod. 3: 15]; ‘Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man’ [Lk. 5; 8]) It was in awe before the transcendent God that the Name had fallen silent.
But the Arians and Iconoclasts were voicing only a limited notion of transcendence. When Christ bridged the gap between his Godhead and our lowly condition, his kenosis revealed a greatness more exalted than any we could know by other means. Icons, says Theodore, draw our gaze to the face of one who, though truly God, wills to make himself truly known. ‘The icon is the visible testimony to God’s salvific plan’.
Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, is also the Lord of immemorial custom. With a new and personal intimacy, he puts back on the lips of men the Name of the nameless God. In his own person he overthrows the Second Commandment. He makes all things new. He is the image of the invisible God. [Heb 1:3]
All that (as Gregory Dix might have said) every time we kneel down and say ‘Our Father’!
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark. This piece is an expansion of one delivered to members of the Catholic League at the Convent of Our Lady of the Vineyard (the Beguinage) in Bruges, September 1998.