Thinking Anew – What’s in a name?

 

Sometimes I wonder has all the pious “stuff” we have been told distract us from the great story of Jesus Christ.

Only last week a sick woman introduced herself to me by saying she was not “religious”. When I replied that neither was I, she smiled. We agreed neither of us was exactly sure what the word religious means. I’m often inclined to think Christianity and indeed many religions have been hijacked by intolerant zealots.

Tomorrow is the feast of the birth of John the Baptist. Yes, alas, the days are getting shorter, but the birth of John the Baptist reminds us of new life and the importance this man is to play in foretelling the story of Jesus Christ.

Luke in his Gospel (1: 57-66, 80) tells us how his mother gives him the name John. It was expected he would be called Zechariah after his father. There was an element of disappointment about calling him John but once the surprise was gone, people were thrilled with his name. “All their neighbours were filled with awe and the whole affair was talked about throughout the hill country of Judea.”

In recent weeks there has been much media coverage surrounding the Magdalene laundries. The State, the church, the entire nation played a part in causing such pain and suffering to these people. We have all heard horrendous stories: of babies forcefully taken away from their mothers, of nuns striking young girls, placing them in solitary confinement. I heard one woman on radio explain how they were not called by their names but instead given numbers. Horrific. In that same building where that woman was “numbered” there were most likely “holy” statues in every room.

And then there are nicknames: some are good fun, affectionate and even complimentary. But there are the nasty demeaning ones, that degrade and belittle people. Think about it, our names are unique aspects of our individuality. When someone calls us out by our name it stops us in our step. And we play all sorts of funny games with how we name people.

I’m old enough to recall how we were called by our family name in school. Even back then it sounded cold, callous and nasty to me when the teacher called out, Murphy, Bollard, Phillips, Commane. There was an element of savagery to it. It certainly instilled an atmosphere of fear and dread. I can still feel it more than 50 years later.

What must it have been like in the Magdalene laundries? Certainly our schools, at least in that aspect, are far better places today.

My schooldays were steeped in a reign of terror. I know. I was there. And again, the vast majority of schools were run by the Catholic Church, with statues in every classroom. Now do you understand why I can’t take the pious “stuff”? These days to call someone simply by their family name with no title would be unthinkable. And then when you consider the nonsense and games that surround titles, we find ourselves entering another territory: it’s Dr Murphy but the catering assistant is John.

Has it all to do with power and control? Why has there been the tradition of a woman taking the family name of her husband? And then those letters we receive from service providers. Last week I received a letter from Virgin Media, which began “Dear Michael”. The mail may have been generated in the Philippines and certainly the person who wrote the letter does not know me from Adam, so why be so familiar? Is it not another misuse of my name?

Reading tomorrow’s Gospel, it is fascinating to see the importance that is given to John’s name. In St John’s Gospel in the parable of the Good Shepherd (John 10: 1 -21) we read how the sheep and shepherd identify with one another because they recognise the shepherd’s voice. Our names are important. When we give respect and care to people’s names, we recognise the dignity of the person. Is that not the message of the Gospel story? There’s a bitter wisdom in Muhammad Ali’s words: “All black Americans have slave names. They have white names; names that the slave master has given to them.”

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