Saturday, December 31, 2011

What is the “Name” of God?: The Readings for the Octave of Christmas

Years ago, while I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, some very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses paid a visit to my home and tried to persuade me that I was missing out on God’s best in my life, because I was not praying to God by the correct name: Jehovah.

I disagreed with them, and still do, because of the truths that emerge from the Scriptures read at Mass for this weekend.

This Sunday is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, as well as the Octave Day of Christmas. We notice that the Readings chosen for Mass are not explicitly Marian, but tend to follow the theme of the Octave, with the Gospel Reading giving the account of the circumcision and naming of Jesus on the eighth day after his birth.

Thus, a dominant motif throughout the Readings is the name of God.

In the First Reading, we have the well-known priestly blessing formula from Numbers 6:

Reading 1: Numbers 6:22-27
The LORD said to Moses:
“Speak to Aaron and his sons and tell them:
This is how you shall bless the Israelites.
Say to them:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon
you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and
give you peace!
So shall they invoke my name upon the Israelites,
and I will bless them.”

Every place in the text where we see “LORD” in all caps, the Hebrew has the divine name YHWH, the name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3, which appears to be a third masculine singular form of the Hebrew verb “to be,” thus meaning “HE IS.”

(A digression:) After the Exile to Babylon (c. 587-537 BC), the Jews stopped pronouncing the Divine Name YWHW altogether. Instead, they said “LORD” (Hebrew adonai), a practice reflected in the New Testament and continued in Christian tradition. In Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible, Jews wrote (and still write) the consonants of the Divine Name (YHWH) with the vowels for adonai: the consonants represent the ancient written tradition (Heb. Ketiv), the vowels what is actually pronounced (Heb. Qere). The King James translators misunderstood this Jewish custom and rendered the Divine Name in English as “Jehovah” in four instances. The word “Jehovah,” however, is a linguistic mistake. It is certainly not how the Divine Name was pronounced in ancient times. The Apostles and Jesus himself did not pronounce the Divine Name: they said “Lord” (in Greek, kyrios). The Christian tradition has followed their example ever since. This is one reason I did not buy the arguments of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

(Back to the Readings:)
In the priestly blessing formula of Numbers 6, the priest pronounces the divine name three times over the people of Israel. This is referred to as “invoking my name upon the Israelites.” In Hebrew thought, the name of a person was (and is) of paramount significance: it represented the essence or nature of the person. To invoke the “name” was almost to make the person present. The placing of the “name” upon the people through this blessing was almost a communication of the divine nature to the people, a sharing of God’s own self with his chosen ones. God’s sharing of himself—for example, through the gift of his Spirit—was limited in the Old Covenant (Num 11:29), but unlimited in the New: we are now called to be “partakers of the divine nature” (1 Peter 1:4), a reality called divinization or theosis by the Fathers. This seems scandalous, that we are to share the divine nature and become like God.  This is a great mystery, which can be misunderstood and misconstrued. Of course, we do not become our own gods, as Mormon theology teaches. But we do become like him: one patristic analogy used the image of an iron heated in a furnace that eventually glows red-hot, sharing in the “nature” of the fire. So: heated in the furnace of God’s love, we come to share his nature.

The Responsorial Psalm is a cry for the blessing of God. Following the First Reading, it can be understood as an expression of our desire for a greater blessing from God—a greater sharing in his nature—than what was available under the Old Covenant. The blessing of the “name” in the Old Covenant was good, but penultimate. A greater intimacy is still needed (Psalm 42:2):

Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8.
R. (2a) May God bless us in his mercy.
May God have pity on us and bless us;
may he let his face shine upon us.
So may your way be known upon earth;
among all nations, your salvation.
R. May God bless us in his mercy.
May the nations be glad and exult
because you rule the peoples in equity;
the nations on the earth you guide.
R. May God bless us in his mercy.
May the peoples praise you, O God;
may all the peoples praise you!
May God bless us,
and may all the ends of the earth fear him!
R. May God bless us in his mercy.

I don’t need to mention that the “mercy” spoken of in this Psalm is God’s hesed, his covenant fidelity.

The Second Reading actually describes the increase of interpersonal communion introduced in the New Covenant:
Reading 2 Gal 4:4-7
Brothers and sisters:
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
to ransom those under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as sons.
As proof that you are sons,
God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts,
crying out, “Abba, Father!”
So you are no longer a slave but a son,
and if a son then also an heir, through God.

Divine sonship had been offered to the people of Israel in the Old Covenant (Exodus 4:22; 19:5-6), but was essentially rejected at the Golden Calf rebellion (Exod 32) and the subsequent rebellions during the wilderness wanderings recorded in the Book of Numbers.

St. Paul's point in the Second Reading is that divine sonship—involving the communication of God’s nature or Spirit—is now offered to the New Israel, which includes all who embrace the Messiah, the anointed one. This Messiah is God’s own Son. All who unite themselves to him share his relationship of Sonship with the Father.

The First Reading emphasized the “name” of God.

This Second Reading introduces a new divine name: father.

The use of the name “father” for God was rare in the Old Covenant, and was not employed in prayer. With the coming of the New Covenant, we are introduced to a greater intimacy with God, now invoking him not so much as the great “HE IS” (YHWH), but as “father,” the one who communicates his nature to us and cares for us as his beloved children.

This inauguration of a new relationship with God is an act of the entire Trinity: the Father sends the Son so that we may share the Son’s relationship with the Father, and this sharing is made possible by the gift of the Spirit.

The Gospel Reading introduces another “name” for God.  If the First Reading invoked God as “YHWH,” “HE IS," and the Second Reading invoked God as “Father,” the Gospel introduces God as “Jesus”:

Gospel Lk 2:16-21
The shepherds went in haste to Bethlehem and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.

When eight days were completed for his circumcision,
he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel
before he was conceived in the womb.

The name “Jesus” is a Greek rendering of the Hebrew y’shua, also rendered “Joshua,” meaning “Salvation.”

This name, “Jesus,” is the new Name of God which will communicate his presence to us.

The Priestly Blessing of Numbers 6 was still used during the lifetime of Jesus. It was employed once a year, on the holiest day of the Jewish liturgical calendar, the Day of Atonement. After performing the atonement ritual in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would emerge from the Temple and bless the people who had gathered to witness the event. According the Mishnah, the High Priest pronounced the blessing from Numbers 6, and every time he actually pronounced the name “YHWH”—which was never pronounced by any Jew at any other time—the gathered crowds threw themselves on the ground in reverent prostration.

This reverence given to the Divine Name under the Old Covenant is transferred, in a certain way, to the Name of Jesus. Thus, St. Paul will say:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 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. (Phil. 2:9-11)

In saying this, St. Paul may well have had in mind the dramatic prostrations of the crowds gathered to be blessed by the Divine Name on the Day of Atonement.

[In traditional Catholic piety, the head was bowed every time the Holy Name of Jesus is mentioned. This pious practice was excellent and should be recovered, although I admit I myself was not trained in it and have not gained the habit.]

During the unfolding of the theology of the Name of God in our Readings today, Mary stands quietly by. She is mentioned twice: in the Second Reading, we are reminded that the Son was “born of a woman,” and in the Gospel, we are told that Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19)

Blessed John Paul II in his Wednesday audience of Jan. 28, 1987, expressed his personal belief that this verse (Luke 2:19) indicated the source from which St. Luke was deriving his information. In other words, the author of the third gospel received these accounts from the Mother of the Lord herself.

On this Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, the Church is calling us to join her in “pondering these things in our hearts.” The central truth to ponder today is the development of God’s self-revelation as we move from the Old to the New Covenant. God has now revealed himself to us as “Father” and “Jesus.” These are now the names we may use to invoke God in prayer. Or better, these are the names that well up on our lips as God’s Spirit prays through us, because—through baptism—we have begun to share the divine nature. Mary was the closest to all the events which brought us Salvation, and being pure and simple of heart, she had (and has!) the best understanding of these mysteries, and can assist us in our own efforts to understand them.

For many, Monday (or Tuesday at the latest) will bring the return to the work-a-day grind and the practical end of the Christmas season.  Though the garland is boxed up and the lights are back in the attic, the Name of Jesus remains on our lips!  His presence abides with us, comforting us, helping us to transform our work into prayer, enabling each moment to be an experience of communion with God. 


Pieter said...

Wow, thanks for your words on the Scriptures and the Divine Name. I guess it is very fitting then that we celebrate today or tomorrow (depending on the old or new calendar for the Roman Rite) the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.

Brother Paul said...

The practice of bowing the head at the mention of the Name of Jesus is actually stipulated in the General Instruction for the Roman Missal. So it should be done during Mass, at least. Like you, however, I have not been trained to do this, and am still trying to acquire the habit.

With regard to the main issue, one might also quote Jesus in John's Gospel saying, "I have revealed Your Name to those whom You gave me out of the world"(John 17:6). And what Name did Jesus reveal to His disciples? Clue: It wasn't 'Jehovah'!

RAB said...

I am 60 years old. I was taught to bow my head at the name of Jesus by the Salesian sisters at Villa Madonna della Neve in Tampa Florida. God Bless them.

Charlie V. said...

Thank you learned Sirs for this excellent article. My only comments are that, it is difficult, if not entirely impossible to argue with Jehovah's Witnesses for a couple of different reasons: first, there is no common point of reference to discuss Sacred Scripture, since they use a flawed bible, which contains substantially different wording than the Catholic Bible; and second, Jehovah's Witnesses practice the ancient heresy of Arianism, i.e. they do not believe Jesus Christ is fully God. Arians believe that Christ was merely the greatest creature of God the Father. It is difficult having a discussion with hard-hearted ignorance. God bless, my brothers.

BlueWhiteLion said...

I was blessed by this article, thank you. Still pondering it. the pronouncement of His name over the assembly is something I had not pondered before. Appreciate the various threads you tie together.

Charlie V--you are right. I am no expert, but I have picked up that arguing from scripture or lambasting their theology only confirms for them that we are apostate (or whatever term). What may help, as a source I read informed me, was to possibly show the historical gross inconsistencies in the Watchtower group itself. that that sometimes shook their foundation enough to question the WT and be open to other views. But I assume, to do so always with love and gentleness.

John Bergsma said...

Thanks for the great contributions, everyone. God bless the Jehovah's Witnesses--may their zeal find a worthier cause.

Doug said...

"three Catholic Ph.D.s" write:
"After the Exile to Babylon (c. 587-537 BC), the Jews stopped pronouncing the Divine Name [YHWH] altogether. Instead, they said "LORD" (Hebrew adonai), a practice reflected in the New Testament and continued in Christian tradition."

This 'stopping' is more properly called "a superstition of the Jews" (as in the preface to the American Standard Version of 1901). Thus what you call "Christian tradition" is based on Jewish superstition. My choice is to avoid that. (Mark 7:9)

It is easy to see that ordinary Jews did use the personal name- not a title, like Lord- in ordinary conversation: At Ruth 2, ASV:
"And, behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said unto the reapers, Jehovah be with you. And they answered him, Jehovah bless thee."
But this can be seen in any version, like the Douay, by 'back-translating' from LORD to Jehovah. (If a man can replace the name of "the only true God"- as our Lord called him at John 17:3- then a man can restore it.)
Or it can be seen in the Jerusalem Bible- a Catholic translation- which uses the alternate transliteration Yahweh. (Note that this also is a personal name, not a title.) Thus we learn from a study of the Bible:

a) There is one and only one Almighty God, by his son's own count.
b) He has a personal name, Jehovah.
c) We have no idea how any Hebrew name was pronounced: no tape recorders.
d) Some have made guesses, like this one: "y’shua, also rendered 'Joshua'." But Yeshua and Yehoshua are also often used; which one guides the English reader to the "true" name of Moses' lieutenant?

So the lengthy 'scholarship' here is irrelevant. Some in my experience do this out of ignorance, others with bad intent.

Would anyone like to progress to another point in the OP?