Thursday, October 8, 2009

2nd Commandment, Part 1

Written for our parish bulletin, here is the latest in our occasional series.
Living your faith in the real world
The Second Commandment:
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.

Among all the words of Revelation, there is one which is unique: the revealed name of God. God confides his name to those who believe in him; he reveals himself to them in his personal mystery. The gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy. “The Lord’s name is holy.” For this reason man must not abuse it. He must keep it in mind in silent, loving adoration. He will not introduce it into his own speech except to bless, praise, and glorify it.74

God calls each one by name.87 Everyone’s name is sacred. The name is the icon of the person. It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it.

The name one receives is a name for eternity. In the kingdom, the mysterious and unique character of each person marked with God’s name will shine forth in splendor. “To him who conquers . . . I will give a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.”88 “Then I looked, and Lo, on Mount Zion stood the Lamb, and with him a hundred and forty- four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.”89
2143, 2158, 2159 Catechism of the Catholic Church
To the modern mind there is something a bit quaint about this commandment. Yes, we understand that we are not to swear and especially not to swear using God’s name. However, even if we slip our apology often has something less than the ring of complete sincerity. After all, this is just a name. As Shakespeare famously wrote, “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” Names don’t mean much.

However, that was far from the understanding at the time when God gave the Moses this command. In ancient cultures a person’s name was a direct symbol of that person. Names were so important and conveyed such direct symbolism that they were only changed as a reflection that something integral to the person had changed. We see this when Abram becomes Abraham (father of a multitude or many nations”) after God enters into a covenant with him and promises that Abraham shall have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky. Jacob wrestles with the angel and his name is changed to Israel (the one who wrestled with God). Perhaps a more familiar name change in the Bible comes when Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (rock) saying, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”*

If peoples’ names were considered a reflection of their essence, then it would follow that God’s name would reflect who He is in all His holiness. God tells Moses that his name is, “I am.” This reflects His uniqueness, His mystery, and the fact that He doesn’t merely exist; He is, in fact, existence itself.

To use God’s name familiarly and casually in this cultural understanding would be to claim to take on the essence of God Himself. Israel’s neighbors, in fact, routinely used their god’s names in magical conjuring. Invoking God’s name would not only be considered a challenge to authority but also idolatrous. It would be an attempt to harness the power of God for one’s own petty desires, as a man would harness an oxen to plow a field.

Therefore, it becomes much easier to see that in Jesus was claiming to be God when he used His name, saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am.”** The Jews of the time knew exactly what Jesus was claiming for they instantly tried to stone him to death (the penalty for blasphemy).

Take some time to consider all the implications of what it really means to use God’s name for anything except in love. Next we will consider what our new understanding of the second commandment means in everyday life.
74 Cf. Zech 2:13; Ps 29:2; 96:2; 113:1-2.
87 Cf. Isa 43:1; Jn 10:3.
88 Rev 2:17.
89 Rev 14:1.
* (Matt. 16:16-18)
** John 8:58

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