January 27, 2017

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Our Christian identity is tied to our names

Sean GallagherMy 3-year-old son Colin is continually growing in his vocabulary—and his self‑awareness. Lately, he’s taken to referring to himself by his name.

For example, if he is competing with his brothers for his mother’s attention, he’ll say forcefully, “Colin’s mommy!” If he wants a toy to himself, he’ll “That’s Colin’s.” Or if someone in the family tries to do something for him that he knows he can do himself, such as taking off or putting on a shirt, he’ll say, “Colin do it.”

All of this is appropriate for his age and stage of development. He’ll grow out of it soon enough. But I hope not too soon. It certainly brings smiles to my wife Cindy and I.

This growing self-awareness strikes at the core of our human condition. Each of us innately knows that we are unique. We may share a human nature with every person on the planet, but that nature is expressed in each of us in a way that is unrepeatable. We experience this reality in part through our names.

Again, many otherwise unrelated people share the same first name and in many cases the same last name—even a person with a name like Gallagher. But as we grow up, we connect our distinct identity more and more to the name given to us by our parents.

That was reinforced in my own life as I grew up with the particular spelling of my first name. “Sean” is a more common name now than when I was a child. Then it was unusual, and I frequently had people pronounce my name “Seen” and spell it “Shawn” or “Shaun.” I even received a letter once addressed to “Scan Gallagher.”

I learned from an early age to be patient with such mistakes, and to correct them courteously when appropriate. But it didn’t take away my frustration when other people made mistakes about my name.

This connection between personal identities and names is natural—and also biblical. When Moses asked the Lord for his name when he encountered him in the burning bush, the Lord told him, “I am who am” (Ex 3:14). This mysterious reply has traditionally been understood to say that the Lord’s name reflects his identity, that God’s existence is eternal, outside space and time. He has never not existed. He simply is. “I am who am.”

At the start of the New Testament, we learn that John the Baptist and Jesus were given their names by an angel before they were conceived in their mothers’ wombs. And the Hebrew meaning of Jesus’ name—“God saves”—shows how his name and his mission are inseparable. Jesus gave a new name to his Apostle Simon, calling him Peter, which means “rock.” This Apostle’s name and his God-given mission are bound up together. Jesus named him the “rock” upon which he would build his Church (Mt 16:18).

The naming of a person to be baptized is an important part of the ritual of baptism in the Church. In baptism, God is claiming us as his own, by name. And in being baptized, we take on another name that reflects our wondrous, God-given, life‑saving identity: Christian.

Little Colin may be just starting to learn who he is. As he does, he seems to take pride in his identity. Hopefully, he and all of us can take a holy pride in who we are in the eyes of God—his adopted children whom he loves infinitely in our uniqueness. †

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