And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you … this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations. (Exodus 3:14-15)
When I was growing up, there was an Anglican parish church just down the road. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of walking through that churchyard on some rainy autumn day and reading the inscriptions on the monuments. Some of the tombs belonged to families, and had several generations of names inscribed on them; the older names were weathered and worn away so they could hardly be read. Some of them belonged to children; I remember seeing one tiny grave on which the dates were April to December of the same year. A little toy windmill had been placed on the gravestone.
I remember this because almost all the older inscriptions seemed to use the same formula. They wouldn’t say ‘in loving memory’, or ‘much missed’, or anything like that: they would always say ‘sacred to the memory of…’.
It may be an odd phrase to use, but it’s stayed with me, and I think it’s immensely important. That which is sacred is holy, set apart, separated by some divine or human action for a higher purpose, much as God in the beginning separated the light from the darkness. So what could it mean to be sacred to someone’s memory?
Call to mind for a moment what you do when you think about someone you know – a friend, a loved one, a grandparent who’s passed on. You don’t just form a mental picture of them (though you may do that). Nor do you consider them a collection of unrelated characteristics. Rather, what you must always do first of all is remember their identity, and, primarily, their name.
My name is not straightforwardly identical to me: I don’t appear behind you if you say it (thank goodness). Yet there is a sense in which the two are indistinguishable. In linguistic terms, I am the referent of my name – but the relationship is much closer than that. You could also, if you wished, refer to me as ‘him over there’, ‘the guy I saw at the Catholic chaplaincy today’, or ‘that idiot who wrote that Newman article’. Any of those would be just as accurate, in context – but there is a sense in which they would not be me.
Instead, what makes every name remarkable (one might almost say divine) is that it refers to us entirely, in our material and spiritual completeness. People are both body and soul, but they are not separately body and soul: Christians are not Cartesian dualists. Rather, body and soul form a perfect unity, and they are both, inseparably, ‘me’. Every other way of referring to someone captures only part of them, but their name encompasses everything that makes them a distinct, and immeasurably precious, human person.
This is what it means to be sacred to someone’s memory: all true memory is sacred. Every friend, every spouse, every grieving child is a shrine. When you remember someone by their name, you are not simply calling to mind what they’re like. You are beginning, in our imperfect and broken human way, to see them as God sees them.
Names run through Holy Scripture like a thread. In the beginning, God calls the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’. At God’s command, Adam calls every creature by its name, and names his wife Eve, as the mother of all the living; Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel; Saul of Tarsus repents and becomes Saint Paul the Apostle, and Simon becomes Saint Peter.
Through God come all these names, and each one is perfect. But most remarkable is the fact that God names Himself. Through the Holy Spirit, the prophet Isaiah says of the Son of God that ‘they shall call his name Emmanuel’, ‘God is with us’; an angel of the Lord tells Saint Joseph that the name of the son of Mary is to be Jesus; and God says to Moses out of the miraculous fire that his name is ‘I am that I am’.
Each of these names, as above, does not merely describe God, but is God. ‘Jesus’ means ‘Saviour’, which he is; ‘I Am’ is God’s nature, unchanging and necessary, source and sustainer of all existence; and as for the people who were to say of Jesus, ‘God is with us’ – well, they were right. Like the persons of the Trinity, these names are incommensurable, yet identical, and each one infinitely holy.
As Catholics, in January, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name – and of the Name specifically. Aristotelians rightly describe God as the First Cause, but we don’t talk about ‘the body and blood of the Prime Mover’. That’s not a name, merely a description. To use a genuine name in reference to God – to name Him with one of his true names, as He has asked to be named – is, even though we cannot possibly comprehend a fraction of what we are doing, to encompass everything about Him. That is why Christians have known since the earliest times that the name of Jesus has such power. To use a name of God is thus to set Him apart, which is the same as sanctifying Him – holiness is, simply, separation. In thus recalling him by name, we also make ourselves sacred to his memory, as were the gravestones in that churchyard on that rainy autumn day. As we pray, sometimes without thinking, at the Mass: ‘Hallowed be thy name.’
So why all that renaming in the Bible? The name of God is immeasurably holy, but there is a sense in which all names are holy, as all names separate perfectly and entirely, encompassing exactly who we are. Every naming is a sanctification, and every renaming a calling to some new and holier purpose. God blesses Abram and his descendants by making him Abraham, and makes Simon into the Church’s foundation stone by calling him Peter.
Your name too is a blessing. When I recall you by your name, or you recall me by mine, we make a promise: to accept and love one another wholly, as children in the image and likeness of God. We are sacred to one another’s memory.
But I still remember the little gravestone in the churchyard, and the children who died before me, while Providence allowed me to live. What did God give them?
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh wrote:
‘We also have another name, one which we do not know. You remember the passage in the Book of Revelation which says that in the Kingdom each will receive a white stone with a name written on it, a name which is known only to God and to him who receives it?
This is no nickname, no family name, no Christian name. It is a name, a word, that is exactly identical with us, which coincides with us, which is us. We may almost say it is a word which God pronounced when he willed us into existence and which is us, as we are it.
This name defines our absolute and unrepeatable uniqueness as far as God is concerned. No one can know the name, as no one can, in the last analysis, know anyone as God knows him; and yet it is out of this name that everything else comes that can be known about us.’
That is what, for their salvation, God gave the little children who went unto Him. In creating them, he hallowed them, he named them. He gave them themselves. That is what God gave me, too, when I converted. He gave me back to me.
So remember your friends, family and loved ones by their names. (But don’t worry if you mispronounce them. Everyone does at Oxford.)