In commemoration of the feast of the Most Holy Name of Jesus, the vicar of the province of the same name describes the significance of the feast.
There are moments in life when something major just seems to “click;” a “light goes on,” as it were. Call them moments of insight or inspiration or whatever, these experiences continue to nourish and sustain long after they first strike. They are wellsprings of life.
One such moment occurred for me while I was a student at the Washington Theological Union. The course was “The Old Testament” and we were discussing the revelation to Moses of the Divine Name. Countless times I had heard and read that the meaning of the tetragrammaton was I AM WHOM AM. Which is fine, I guess… up to a point. God as pure being, actuality as opposed to potency, leading to the usual philosophical flights of Platonic idealism, etc.
Then came the bombshell! Professor Joe Wimmer suggested an alternative translation of YHWH that, he assured us, was faithful to the Hebrew language: “I will be for you who I will be.” I was instantly riveted. “I will be for you.” A God of relationship, a God who is truly “for us.” A God of immanence who hears the cry of the people and chooses lovingly and compassionately to respond. “I have witnessed the affliction of my people… and have heard their cry against their taskmasters, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them…” (Ex. 3:7-8).
And yet, at the same time and in the same four Hebrew letters, “I will be…who I will be.” I pictured the raised hand of Another indicating “halt; come no further.” A God of mystery and transcendence. A God utterly beyond human control or domestication. An elusive God beyond our intellectual grasp. Totaliter aliter; let all mortal flesh keep silence. Our partner, not our pet!
The coincidence of these seeming polar opposites shimmered before and within me. I knew that I was in the presence of God-talk, of primary speech, that rang true to my experience and, hence, felt like a homecoming. For I’ve known those moments when, like Augustine, I could affirm “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” But how often I’ve also felt like Job: “I have spoken but did not understand; things too marvelous for me, which I did not know. By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said…” (42: 3, 5-6).
On Jan. 3, we will be celebrating the patronal feast of our Province: the Most Holy Name of Jesus. This feast of the Divine Name was dear to the heart of St. Bernardine of Siena. In preaching many missions throughout Italy, he often carried a banner with the monogram IHS — the first three letters of the name Jesus in Greek — as he invited his listeners to a change of life. Many people began to place the monogram of the Holy Name over the doorways of their houses and over the gates of their cities. It’s found to this day in many of our friaries.
In a sermon (# 49) for this feast day, our Franciscan brother wrote:
The name of Jesus is the glory of preachers, because the shining splendor of that name causes his word to be proclaimed and heard. And how do you think such an immense, sudden, and dazzling light came into the world, if not because Jesus was preached? Was it not through the brilliance and sweet savor of this name that God called us into his marvelous light? When we have been enlightened, and in that same light behold the light of heaven, rightly may the apostle Paul say to us: Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.
A God for Us
I wish I could say that I had had the experience of “an immense, sudden and dazzling light” coming into my life with the word “Jesus” (God saves) as I did so many years ago with the word YHWH! And yet, it makes me wonder what depths of the Name I have yet to plumb.
Certainly, the Christmas season is a perfect time to savor and correlate the compenetration of those two divine names. The Word became flesh and made his home among us. I call you friends. (Jn 1: 14; 15:15). Truly a God “for us.” And the people said to themselves: “Who is this man who speaks with such authority? Never has anyone spoken the way this one speaks!” (Lk 4: 32; Jn 7:46). Truly a God who will be “who he will be” — beyond our ability to circumscribe or contain. The examples in Scripture are many and varied as we contemplate the mystery of the Infinite become infant, “the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, humbly hiding for our salvation under an ordinary piece of bread” (Francis, Letter to the Entire Order 27).
Perhaps St. Paul came closest to the heart of this feast when he wrote to the Philippians (2: 8-10):
Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I begin to feel that shimmer within me once again…
— Fr. Lawrence, Provincial Vicar since June 2014, lives at Holy Name of Jesus Friary in New York City.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in submitting an essay on a holiday, feast day or other timely theme for consideration for a future issue of HNP Today should contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The previous reflection, by Gene Pistacchio, OFM, about Advent and the beauty of contemplative prayer, was published on Dec. 15.