Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, 3;1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11
The Remembrance of God’s Name
In China, a couple of weeks ago, I was with a friend who wasn’t feeling well, and he decided to go to a traditional Chinese doctor – a cross between an acupuncturist, faith healer and fortune teller. We began a lively conversation, in which he asked me “What is your name?” “William,” I replied. “Is that your real name?” “Yes. It is.” “Is it your inner name” “Yes, it is.” “What does it mean?” “Protector” I said. “Do you identify with this inner name?” “Yes,” I said “it’s my baptismal name, one which reaches back generations in my family, and one which is written in my heart.” He seemed happy with this, and then kept repeating my name while he needled my friend. It was all very interesting, and only this week I was in a training seminar in the Diocese at which we were looking at appropriate methods of appraisal or, to use the jargon, Ministerial Development Review. With others, I do this for clergy in the Diocese and this week we were looking at a new book on appraisal, in which we use Emotional Intelligence and focus on the name of the person – what is the name with which you identify, and which resonates with you? I recommend this book – Wisdom Road, by Viv Thomas. Lest you think this is straying into psychobabble and counselling, neither of which I find particularly helpful, let me root this in theology, which after all is what I am supposed to do. Today, in our Lent Series we are invited to consider the Remembrance of God’s Name as a major part of our identity.
The national Lent Course of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland is reflections on how our encounters as Christians with other faiths enriches our own faith. This is certainly true in my own experience where, having lived and worked in the Middle East, my faith has been enriched by my encounter with Islam and with Christians who live as small minorities in the Muslim world. I have been enriched by my own encounter with both, and continue to be enriched by them as I hope I am always learning. So, I am glad that we are using this material locally through the Kensington Council of Churches and through Churches Together in Notting Hill. You will see details of how you can access this course in one of the four fliers we are giving out today.
Remembrance is central to what we do as Christians, and we hold this in common with the other major world traditions. The material we will be using this week, focuses on Sikhism, and the Naam of God. Listen to this, from the Guru Granth Sahib, “Take love as your pen and with reason as scribe enquire of God and list his commands. Write on that paper the Name with your praises, write of the infinite power? They who have treasured your name in their hearts bear the marks of your grace on their brows. For grace is the means to obtaining the Name; all other is bluster and wind” This is of course from Sikhism, but the same is shared especially in the Abrahamic tradition of which we are inheritors.
Let’s stay with this concept of the name and expand it by adding remembering. First, the name. In the Biblical tradition, the name is considered to convey both meaning and power. So, in the book Genesis we hear, for example, that the animals and beasts are names – and whatever its name was, that was its name. Pronouncing the name was to identify with its source of power. We know this even at a street level- if you call after someone “Hey you”, this will be far less effective than calling out “Hey Larry.” The name here conveys knowledge and spiritual power. Any priest or psychoanalyst also knows this very well – for it is when we can name our demons and speak them out that they no longer have power over us. The opposite is also true – when we cannot name and speak out our demons, then they continue to have power over us. This is basis to many forms of addiction therapy through the 12-step process. I don’t really need to say these obvious things, but they do connect us to the power of the name.
Now the act of re-membering. In Anglo-Saxon, re-membering means literally putting back together the pieces which have been scattered. Our disjointed members are put back together – both within ourselves and within the body to which we belong- in our case, the Christian Church, the re-membered Body of Christ. If we go to its Semitic roots, this concept of putting back together is even more powerful. In Hebrew, the word is Dhikr- it means literally a piercing- in this case, the veil of time is pierced by the act of remembering. In Dhikr, the remembering of God’s name, we are taken beyond space and time into the realm of the eternal. This we see most clearly in the Old Testament in the Name of God “I am.” This name of God is called the tetragrammaton, and is four consonants in Hebrew. YHVH. In English, this becomes Yahweh Jehovah, but what it is linguistically is the verb to be, but in Hebrew it has no tense. So, who is God? I am who I am. Or I was who I was. Or best of all I am who I was and will be or I will be who I was and am. Here, the believer is taken out of the realm of space and time by the remembrance of God’s name. So too in mystical Islam, the Zhikr, or ritualised dance of the Sufism, recalls the name and power of God through recitation of the Holy Name.
In our own Christian tradition, here we use the Greek word anamnesis – the act of remembering, and it is most clear in our central act of worship; the Holy Eucharist. Here, we take and we re-member the Body of Christ by becoming it. In anamnesis, the act is not a passive one of simply remembering some event from the past. In the act of remembering, time falls away, the veil of the past is pierced, Christ is re-membered, and becomes dynamically present now – both in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but also by the action of the Holy Spirit as you and I become the actual Body of Christ in the world. How dynamic and freeing is that?
So, this Lent, we have many opportunities to realise that we are known by name to God, and loved by him as we are. The Lent exercise we are inviting all regular worshippers to do is to respond in thankfulness to this generous and overflowing love for each one of us, whom he calls by name. Please take the leaflet away with you and use it in your prayers and reflection inviting a response of generosity of heart and hand to the love of God, who loves us first- by name. At the same time, we begin today our preparation work for First communion and Confirmation at Easter, and as usual, we have several adults from the house of Islam who will be making this journey. When the Bishop confirms at Easter, he will say “Mohammad, God has called you by name and made you his own”. May we take strength and encouragement from this naming, as an act of loving, this Lent. Then, we will stand in solidarity with Jesus, whom we hear in the Gospel for today “suddenly angels came and waited on him.” May those same angels of God know us by name and minister to each one of us this Lent. Thanks be to God.