Formed by Divine Teaching: Part III

This is part III of “Formed by Divine Teaching”, a 12-part series on the Lord’s prayer. Click here for the main page of the series for updated links for each installment.

“Hallowed be thy name”

What’s in a name?

A famous literary character once said:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
(from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, II.ii)

Were I a character in this drama, I would respond:

Alas, fair maiden Juliet, we find
The wisdom of all times doth disagree;
O, open now thy adolescent mind–
Taste not the fruits which hang from mortal tree!
Wouldst thou excise that grand, sonorous name
That doth recall an empire’s mighty pow’r,
Which, like thy young love, spread like wildest flame
And stretch’d across the world like spring’s new flow’r?
Thine love-drunk paramour wouldst thou invoke
With wicked words which wail infernally?
To hear him “Devil” called would make thee choke,
Though sweet and rose-like Romeo e’er be.
Call him by else, and he’d be not the same;
O Juliet, ’tis he that’s in his name!

Unlike little Miss Capulet (or rather, the late Lady Capulet-Montague), we know that a name is not merely an external label imposed on an unchanging substance. Rather, when someone takes a name or is given a name, the name becomes an integral part of the person. It becomes intimately tied with one’s identity. In metaphysical language, we say that the name points to the essence of the person. How often, when somebody who shares our given name is addressed or invoked, is our attention immediately raised? How often do we realize the power our names have over us? Our ability to be named and to be called puts us at the disposal of others. All another must do is utter that word which points to our very being, and we are impelled to respond. To be named is at once to be made accessible to the Other and to submit to the power of the Other, for one’s name is a bridge, as it were, by which another person makes contact with one’s essence.

When God created the universe, he named the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky, and the waters. But when the earth brought forth the various creatures and plants, he gave man dominion over it, and man gave name to the rest of creation. To call on something by name is by its nature an act of power, and it pertains first of all to Almighty God, who grants this authority in a limited way to man, his favored creature.

This “theology of name” is implicit throughout Scripture and tradition. Abram, whose name means “exalted father”, is given the name Abraham “the father of many”, when God establishes the old covenant. Simon bar Jonah, after confessing Jesus to be the Messiah of the Jews, receives the name Peter, “rock”, for Christ will make of him the foundation for his assembly. The proud and zealous Saul of Tarsus, knocked off his high horse by the Lord, realizes his meekness and takes the name Paul, meaning “little”. Popes and monastics adopt new names as they enter their respective ministries. The taking of a new name signifies precisely this: God has prepared a mission for his ministers and given them a new identity. The Lord sets them apart from their old ways, and in turn, his servants are called to be faithful to their commission.

The Name of God

The Lord’s Prayer refers to the name of God, but doesn’t actually say it. Jesus, as a good Jew, held fast to the traditional reverence for God; though he called him “Father”, and though Jesus was God, he still never dared to use the Lord’s name. To understand why, we must look back to Exodus. When God, in the burning bush, commands Moses to lead Israel out of slavery, Moses asks:

“But if I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what do I tell them?” God replied to Moses: I am who I am [YHWH]. Then he added: This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM [YHWH] has sent me to you. God spoke further to Moses: This is what you will say to the Israelites: The LORD [YHWH], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever; this is my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:13-15)

Moses calls out to God and asks that he name himself. God replies with a backhanded answer, a rebuke of Moses’ desire to name him and thus to assert power over him: I am who I am.  In Hebrew, this abstruse phrase is written with four letters: YHWH (seen above in modern Hebrew script), pronounced “ya-WEH”. This so-called “name of God” is no real name at all; thus the Lord asserts himself as fundamentally different from the other gods of the time: not by statues or pictures is he depicted, and nor can any human word encapsulate him. He is tied to neither to place nor time nor to any nation-state. This God (unlike Baal, Isis, Amun-Ra, or various deified monarchs) simply is— pure, unconditioned, self-subsistent being, or rather, the ground of being which makes possible all other beings. That Hebrew four-letter word– what later Greek translators would call tetragrammaton (literally, “four-letter word”), becomes the exceedingly simple yet exceedingly puzzling cipher for the unfathomable, ineffable divine essence.

A few verses before our aforementioned pericope, God say’s to Moses: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will serve God at this mountain. This holy mountain, Mount Horeb, is often equated with Mount Sinai, and it is here where Moses leads the Israelites and from where he receives the commandments. Here, through the first two commandments, God’s new revelation expounds upon his first revelation in the burning bush.

First, Israel is to have no gods other than the Lord God YHWH who rescued them from Egypt. This is not so much because other gods exist as the Lord’s competitors; rather, it is an affirmation that the God of Israel is Lord alone (Adonai echad). All other gods are false. No other being or so-called deity exists unconditionally except the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Second, the Israelites are not to take the name of the Lord God YHWH in vain. The Israelites understood that the mysterious name YHWH indicated better than any other term who God was in himself; not a lord like worldly lords nor a god like many false gods, but simply one who exists and gives being to all things. Thus, to keep holy his name was the primary way to venerate and revere God himself. This admonition to revere the name of the Lord was taken so seriously that in time, Israelites ceased to pronounce it, and when the tetragrammaton was read in Scripture, it would be read aloud as Adonai, Lord.

Only one man, and only once a year, could utter the Sacred Name. On the feast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant indicated the presence (shekinah) of God, and he would invoke the Sacred Name before returning outside to bless the assembled people with sacrificial blood. The High Priest would not simply speak as in regular speech, nor would he shout the name of the Lord. He would pronounce the name not even so much as a whisper but as a mere breath, out of the same intense piety which forbade all Jews to speak the name.

Now I invite the reader: open your mouth in a natural, non-exaggerated position. Slowly and deeply, inhale through the mouth until the lungs are full. Then, just as slowly and deeply, exhale through the mouth until the lungs are empty. While breathing in this manner, listen attentively to the sound of the inhalation and exhalation. One can scarcely recognize two faint but distinct syllables: yah…. [inhalation], weh… [exhalation].

This is how the High Priest called upon the name of the Lord. With minimum movement of his lips, it is not so much through the High Priest’s efforts that God’s name comes forth; rather, by simplest and most basic act of living–by breathing–does the divine essence become present through the High Priest. The idea of God as unbound by corporeal constraints, as breath, as spiration, as Spirit, is here made manifest. He who made man by breathing into clay returns to renew and vivify his people on the Day of Atonement through the breath of the High Priest and through the sprinkling of sacrificial blood.

The Letter to the Hebrews: a hermenutical key

A Christian explanation of all we have said about the “theology of name”, the name of God, and Yom Kippur comes together in the Pauline corpus, especially in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Now by becoming true man in the person of Jesus, God took human flesh and took a human name. Born of woman and under the law (cf. Galatians 4:4), he became subject to the human condition in the full. By being named, he submitted himself to the power of men. This is an essential aspect of the Incarnation: in order to ransom those under the law of the flesh, he had to be born under that same law (cf. Galatians 4:5).

In Hebrews, Paul attempts to show his Jewish brethren that Jesus of Nazareth is the perfection of the Old Covenant. From Melchizedek to the high priests of his time, Paul depicts Christ as the perfect sacrifice, the true high priest who takes away the sins of his people.

we have such a high priest, who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle that the Lord, not man, set up. (Hebrews 8:1-2)

Hebrews 9 begins with a thorough explanation of the Jewish Temple rites of Yom Kippur and draws parallels to the Sacrifice of Calvary. Then, in a passage worth quoting in full, Paul continues, saying:

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

In a marvelous unity of testimony, the passion narratives of all four gospels refer to Christ giving up or committing the Spirit at the moment of his final breath. The consummation of the Temple sacrifices was complete, and for this reason the veil of the Holy of Holies was torn. Through his last cry on the Cross, Jesus entered the “perfect sanctuary” and “true tabernacle” of the heavens, where as the Supreme High Priest he eternally breathes the Spirit back to the Father, in a way more perfect than when the old priests whispered on Yom Kippur.


We can see how the tetragrammaton, that cryptic notation for God’s name, is ultimately bound up with the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. By a simple breath, God revealed himself to Moses. By that same breath, the High Priests of old were filled with the Spirit and sprinkled blood on the people for their atonement. By giving up his last breath, Christ entered the sanctuary of heaven, pouring out blood and water to signify the new covenant. And while Christ is the fullness of God’s revelation, this strange wisdom of the Cross, which is “scandal to the Jews and folly to the Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23), is no less mysteriously ineffable than the name YHWH. While both the Cross and the tetragrammaton reveal God in a most profound way, man’s frail mind cannot exhaustively grasp this most profound mystery. All we can say is this: God’s name is holy for the same reason the Cross is holy: both reveal the Lord as he is most fundamentally– pure, unmediated being and all-powerful, sacrificial love. We must therefore approach his Holy Name with the same reverence with which we approach the Cross– for as we said earlier in response to Juliet: ’tis He that’s in His name!

Part IV posted!

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