“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Juliet says in Shakespeare’s play.
She means that despite the fact that she and Romeo have the “wrong names”—that is, they are members of feuding families— her love for him is true.
Names are the tools we use to self-identify. Taking on a new name can mean a change in status or a new persona.
For the Israelites, their names often described their personalities. At birth, Jacob (“grasp the heel” or “he supplants”) gripped the heel of his twin brother, Esau (Gen. 25:26). Jacob grew up as a trickster, robbing his brother of his birthright and blessing.
But after Jacob mellowed and sought Esau’s forgiveness, his name was changed. One night he wrestled with a strange man. At daybreak the man, actually an angel, said, “You shall no longer be named Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29 NABRE). Israel was a far better name for a man who would become the father of a nation.
God commands that we respect his name: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7 NIV). Not only should we not swear in God’s name, we should not invoke the name as a magical charm or for false pretenses.
Jesus likewise taught his disciples to respect God’s name. The Lord’s Prayer begins “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Matthew 6:9 NABRE). We not only treat the name with reverence, but also ask that God manifest his glory on earth.
Jesus’ own name came from his heavenly father. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would become pregnant by God’s spirit and “you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31b). “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Joshua,” which means “God saves.” Jesus was the one who saved humanity from sin and death.
Civil authorities ordered the apostles to stop teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:40), but the apostles ignored the order and kept on preaching and healing in the name of their savior.
In our polarized world, those who don’t share our “name”— be it Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative—are considered “wrong.”
But those who follow God have a new name that transcends the earthly names of division: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God . . . . And if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14,17a). We’re no longer pigeonholed into categories but united in God’s household.
“And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). Even if our family of birth was dysfunctional or abusive, God the father gives us a new name as his son or daughter.
Whatever our given name, we can be glad that God has written our moniker in the book of life (Revelation 21:27).
Sally Carpenter, M.Div., is a member of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Moorpark. Reach her at email@example.com.