What’s in a name?

One day my book editor told me that I’m affectionately called the “Hyphenated One” at his office. I sighed. Even after living in Canada for over thirty-five years, I still have to fight to keep my long name. I had a medical appointment recently. “Marie Ternier, please,” the receptionist called out in the waiting area. I didn’t recognize my name, and she called a second time. “Marie Ternier, please.” I got up. “The name is Marie-Louise, with a hyphen,” I said, “and Ternier-Gommers, with another hyphen: my married name first, Ternier, followed by my maiden name, Gommers. The order is Dutch. Computers hate my name, but truly, I’m never called Marie.” The receptionist barely took note of my speech. I went home and mused. What indeed is in a name?

“Marie-Louise Colletta Cornelia Josepha, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest likely said as he poured water over me at 3 days old in Tilburg, the Netherlands. While names are unique to each person they also connect us to our past: my middle names come from my father, my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother

But even though the hyphenated stuff is a real headache in this country, I could not part with it. Hyphenated names are very European, very French in fact, and not just when your name finds itself at the end of a line and needs to be cut in two. I grew up with Marie-Louise, I respond to Marie-Louise – esp. when pronounced the French way (why a Dutch girl should care about that is a story for another time). Pre-owned is fine, first-class is fine, even clear-headed is fine. But not names for some reason; somehow it is assumed that a name such as mine surely would have been shortened long before I could even say it myself.

Our name is very unique to us: “By name I have called you, by name I have saved you; by name you are mine, you are precious to me.” (lyrics based on Isaiah 43:1) Often parents wait to name their newborn until they’ve laid loving eyes on her/him, to make sure the name “fits.” Biblical names remain among the most popular and “durable” ones in every time and place, grounding a child into a rich and deep heritage.

For a name shapes our character and becomes integral to our identity. The fact that name–calling can cut so deeply into us (and I certainly had my fair share of that as a child) merely serves to illustrate even more how very personal our name is.

Scripture says that God knows us by name; Scripture also tells us that God’s name is as important as ours. I love the realization that God calls us by name. Several biblical figures who had a major encounter with God undergo a name change: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Hadassah was known as Esther, Levi became Matthew, Saul was also known as Paul. When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus in the garden but did not know it was him, she only recognized him when he called her name: “Mary.” In the monastic tradition it was customary to change one’s name as one made the life-long commitment to religious life. Initiation rites for young adolescents in aboriginal cultures involve being given a new name. Somehow our name is an intimate aspect of our identity before God and the world.

In the ancient world to know the name of something also denoted to gain a certain power over. Some of that is still true today: each one of us recognizes her/himself by their name. Addressing someone by their first or given name implies a certain familiarity and intimacy. Addressing someone by their last name implies a formal or distant relationship.

The most intimate name I know is Jesus, one who was named by the angel at conception: “You shall name him Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us” (hey, another hyphenated name:)). Jesus showed us in word and deed what it looks like to live to the fullest of our human potential in a God-like manner – fully human and fully divine. That is the deepest desire of my heart: to become all that God is calling me to become after the example of Jesus the Christ. No wonder St Paul recognized Jesus as deserving of the highest honour: “Therefore God hasWhatName1 highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. “ (Philippians 2:9—11)

So once in a while reflect on your name; recall how it has shaped who you are and how you live your life. And always remember God loves you and calls you by name, your first name. In fact, God has carved your name in his heart while he holds you close in the palm of his hand. As for me, I’m keeping my hyphens. This two-in-one name has shaped my character and my self-identity. l Besides, I wouldn’t want to risk arriving at heaven’s door and not recognize when I’m being called: Marie-Louise. If I’m being called that is.

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