What’s in a name?

I wonder if you know what your name means? I do, because I’ve got it on a keyring – a keyring which my brother brought back from his Year 6 school trip because he knew how fed up I was that named things – pens, badges, etc – never seemed to have *my* name, but always had his.

Names matter. They are an important part of who we are. When we are baptised, we are baptised by name, as Vince will be this morning. Names matter because who we are matters – matters to us, and to our families and friends, and matters to God.

When you arrived this morning, you were given a card which says “God says _____ I have called you by name” with a space for you to write your name. I invite you to do that now and, if you want, to decorate that card, perhaps with things that reflect who you are.

“God says _______ I have called you by name.”

Today we celebrate Mary Magdalen, and our gospel reading today includes my favourite story about her. When she meets with the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him… until he calls her by her name. And then – straight away – she knows who this is who knows her name, knows who she really is, and she knows who he really is too – “Rabbouni”, teacher.

Because God knows more than just our names. God knows who we really are, and when we say that God calls us by name, we mean that God calls us as our true, God-created selves, whoever we are. We have been thinking about this at Ark lately, as you can see in our new display.

“Whoever you are, you are loved by God and you are welcome here.”

Who we are can be a complex thing. Our identity may be composed of many layers of meaning. For me, nobody captures this better than TS Eliot in his poem “The Naming of Cats”:

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Sometimes the names we are called are not who we really are. When we are called names on the playground, or on social media, when we are given labels which don’t fit, when we are called by cruel, unpleasant, untrue names, it hurts. Many trans people are deeply hurt and damaged by being called by names and pronouns which aren’t right for them, which don’t fit the gender they really are, don’t reflect their true self – and the church is very far from blameless in this.

Names matter. Identity matters. Our deepest, truest identity is found in who we are in Christ. That is what we celebrate in baptism. Today as he is baptised, we celebrate Vince’s identity, both as a unique individual, created and loved by God, and as a member of the Body of Christ. All of us are invited to join in the responses during the baptism liturgy as a reminder that this is our identity too – fellow members of the Body of Christ, each of our individual selves, our gifts and calling, contributing something vital to the true identity of the Body of Christ.

So I invite you to take away your name card, put it either in a bag or pocket, or somewhere you will see it often at home, and consider it further. Go deeper than your “everyday name” to ponder, like the cats in the poem, who you truly are, your own “deep and inscrutable singular name”, known perhaps only to you and to God. Reflect not only on what it means for God to know your name and call you by it, but also on what it means for you that God knows who you truly are, God knows your whole being, and loves you, loves you immeasurably, exactly who you are.

1 thought on “What’s in a name?

  1. Reading this having watched the film Pride last night leaves me pondering a scene I’ve never been quite sure about. It’s a scene from near the end so if someone reading this hasn’t seen the film, look away now…

    364 days has passed since the start of the film and it’s Pride day (29th June) 1985. Mark returns to the group and throws a package to Joe from Bromley, calling him Bromley as he does so. He unwraps the present and thanks Mark, but says “for future reference, it’s Joe” and then Jonathan (I think) says, “Well said, Bromley” and all the others chant “Bromley, Bromley”.

    It makes me uncomfortable because they aren’t respecting his declared preferred name and yet, it is them affirming his membership of the group and identity within it. He’s left his birth family (who called him Joe) and become Bromley. They (LGSM) don’t call him Bromley because they don’t accept him, but because they do. But he hasn’t quite realised/accepted that, so clings to the name Joe. But still, it feels slightly forced on him, so I’m not sure.

    But then, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with nicknames, because I worry they are grounded in mockery.

    I’m also pondering my relationship with my first name which I share with you and which I used for the first 16 years of my life. It seems to have become less popular between my childhood and yours – finding things with Ruth on them was never an issue – Carys OTOH! I like the name and it’s still part of my identity, although other than family I see very few people who use it.

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