At seventeen years old I was given a great gift from God. It was one day during my Senior year when I was asked to participate in an after school event. About two dozen students were gathered awaiting our instructions when I saw a sight more radiant than any other. There before me, not twenty feet away, stood the most beautiful creation of God I had ever seen. Like Zechariah before me, I was struck mute. Luckily I was still able to walk, which I did, right up to a young lady I’d never before met but would never, ever forget.
My voice and capacity for speech returned by the mercy of God as I worked up the courage to speak. This is the part of the story where modern teenagers become perplexed because I began an actual conversation—without a screen—face to face and communicated with my voice instead of a text.
“Hi, I’m Mark.”
That was it. That was the beginning of a relationship. It all began with a name. In revealing my name I was revealing something about myself. In asking hers, she had the chance to reveal something to me. It was an invitation to ask another question, to get to know more. We spoke at length and within minutes I’d learned where she had moved from, heard about her family, asked about her faith, discovered she was Catholic (thank you, Lord!) and eventually invited her to Mass with me.
It all began with the name, that tiny yet all-important step toward emotional intimacy.
A Divine Connection
Names are important in Scripture, too. We see that a person’s name didn’t just speak to their identity but to something far deeper. One’s name spoke on a certain level about one’s “essence” and true identity. Let us not forget the significance of the name (and subsequent name change) with characters like Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jacob/Israel, and Simon/Peter to name a famous few.
When Moses asked and was entrusted with God’s name, it was an affirmation of his own worth, which comes from God, because God had never before bestowed such an honor on a person. Although Moses had a “past”—the murder of a man in Egypt (see Exodus 2:11-12)—God knew his heart and recognized him as a meek and humble man (Numbers 12:3). God trusted Moses’ motivations in asking for and invoking his holy name. Moses may have been seeking the Lord’s identification but he received far more. Moses was being invited to a deeper level of divine intimacy.
God’s name, revealed to Moses as JHVH or YHWH, translates to “I am” and is known as the sacred tetragrammaton (from a Greek word meaning “four letters”). The name is articulated as either “Jehovah” or “Yahweh,” yet it was not to be spoken aloud. This holy name is a holy designation of the inestimable God of the universe. To invoke the name was to claim to be equal to him. Calling on God for aid or in praise and adoration was acceptable, but invoking God’s unutterable name was blasphemy.
Over the centuries the restrictions in regard to uttering the name became more relaxed. In 2008, however, Pope Benedict XVI issued a reminder to liturgists and musicians that even music used within the Mass ought to be rethought so as to maintain a holy reverence for the unutterable name of the almighty Father. The pope’s proclamation was not intended to be a rebuke but an invitation to constantly discern how reverently we do or do not invoke the name of God. The Holy Father echoes what Christ reminds us of in the Gospels. It’s not what comes out of our mouth that makes us holy, but what comes out of our heart (Matthew 15:11). God desires our holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:7).
It’s with that “backdrop” that we turn our attention to St. John’s Gospel and notice something beautiful and meaningful and, to be frank, quite cool.
What’s in a Name? Quite a Bit, Actually.
Our Lord understood well the ramifications of uttering the sacred name of his Father aloud (just see John 8:58 for a heart-stopping example—almost literally heart-stopping in Jesus’ case). It’s a tense moment when the Pharisees stand ready to exact “old school” Levitical justice (John 8:59, 24:16) for Jesus’ apparent “blasphemy” claiming to be on par with the God of the universe. What is even more compelling, though, is the way the Holy Spirit uses God’s identity and name to unveil something even deeper to us during Christ’s earthly ministry.
A quick glance at the fourth Gospel offers a stunning revelation about not only Christ’s oneness with the Father but, also, the intimacy and life we are offered through his Spirit and, by extension, his sacramental Church. When Jesus utters the “I am” preface he is drawing a direct reference to the divine Name given to Moses, but when he adds the symbolic title to it and, by extension, to himself, something incredible is seen in the scene. Note the seven times and places that Christ identifies himself in St. John’s Gospel, using a familiar formula and rooting it in the sacred and holy name:
- “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35)
- “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12)
- “I am the Door” (John 10:9)
- “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11)
- “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25)
- “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6)
- “I am the True Vine” (John 15:1)
Each of these titles reveals something different about God’s nature, his goodness and benevolence. Every title offers us an eternal insight into our Lord, worthy of deep contemplation. In the words of the late, great Catholic theologian Stratford Caldecott, “Symbolism is the primary language in which God addresses us.”
Even more intriguing than these seven revelations singularly, however, is the veil of grace that is woven and then lifted to unveil something even more glorious… that the Holy Spirit is giving us a sacramental tip of the hat here.
Consider the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church:
Through which sacrament does a couple “bear fruit”?
In what sacrament are we given “the bread of life”?
Which sacrament brings with it pastoral, shepherd-like responsibilities?
By what sacramental means are we initiated into a new way and life?
Contemplate the depth and beauty of the symbolism when Christ’s “I am” sayings from St. John’s Gospel are juxtaposed with their sacramental parallel:
- “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35): Eucharist
- “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12): Confirmation
- “I am the Door” (John 10:9): Reconciliation
- “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11): Holy Orders
- “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25): Anointing
- “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6): Baptism
- “I am the True Vine” (John 15:1): Holy Matrimony
God Wants a Relationship with Us
As the great saints and scholars have noted down through the ages, the Scriptures bring with them an invitation for us to “put out into the deep water” (Luke 5:4), that our eyes might be opened to behold God’s glory.
Consider the words of the great mystic Adrienne Von Speyr in her book The Cross: Word and Sacrament who wrote, “If the Lord’s words are all of a piece with his life and if he surrenders his life on the Cross for his Church, it follows that the Lord’s words from the Cross are closely knit to, parallel to, the sacraments, those vessels of divine grace which overflows from the Cross of the Church.”
The Lord’s “I am” sayings are moments of revelation, yes, but also of invitation. The Lord is inviting us to true intimacy by offering us his very self by way of the sacraments. In the sacraments, God reintroduces himself to the faithful. He invites us to experience a little bit of heaven while still on earth. What a glorious event it is, when the earthly accepts the invitation to the heavenly banquet of grace pouring out around us.
All relationships begin with a name. Twenty-five years ago I asked that young woman her name. Years later she became my wife and how did that relationship reach its truest, purest and highest possible intimacy in God? That’s right, through the sacrament—and “I am” forever grateful it did!