2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
What’s In A Name
What’s In A Name
Readings: 1 Samuel 3:3-10,19; Psalm 39:2,4,7-10; 1 Corinthians 6:13-15,17-20; John 1:35-42
Picture: cc EUGENE HOOD PHOTO
Sisters and brothers, when I was still in school, a bunch of my friends and I had a favourite expression. Whenever one of us did or said something surprising or out of character, something outrageous or just plain stupid, the rest of us would say to the person: What is your name?! I don’t remember exactly when and how we started doing this. And, at the time, I didn’t really take the trouble to wonder why. It just felt like fun. But now, looking back, I think that perhaps there was more to it than just amusement. What is your name? At one level, it sounds like a ridiculous question. We were friends. We already knew our names. So why ask? Unless, of course, there is more to my name than I realise.
We may not think much about it. But most of us have more than one name, don’t we? There is the common one that most people use. And then there are the ones known only to a few. For example, a man may introduce himself by saying: I am Tan Ah Huat, but my friends call me AH. Or, at work, a powerful corporate boss may be called M’am, or Mrs. So and So. But, at home, she answers to other titles. Like mommy, or sweetie pie, or honey bunch.
What is your name? Whether we knew it at the time or not, through this expression, my schoolmates and I were really saying to each other: Who are you? I thought I knew you. But now you’ve said or done something that makes me think otherwise. So, who are you, really? What is your name? It’s an important question. I need to know my names. Otherwise I won’t know when someone is calling. But that’s not all. I need to be familiar with the different names that people use for me, not just so that I can know when I am being called, but also so that I can know who it is that’s doing the calling. Only my friends call me AH. Only my children call me mommy.
We see something similar in our Mass readings today. In the first reading, the boy Samuel hears himself being called by name. But he keeps mistaking God’s voice for that of Eli. And there’s a reason for this. We’re told that Samuel had as yet no knowledge of the Lord and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. He knows he is being called, but he doesn’t know by whom. He hears the call, but he doesn’t yet know the caller. So he doesn’t know how to respond. Which is what makes his master’s instruction so important. Eli teaches Samuel to say: Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. This is not just a formula of words. Rather, it is an invaluable lesson in how to recognise and respond to God’s voice. In this response, Eli teaches Samuel how to acknowledge and answer to a new name. Other people may call him Samuel, but, before God, he is to be known by another designation. Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. And it is only when he accepts the name servant, and learns to act accordingly, that the boy Samuel finally grows up into the person he is meant to be: a prophet sent by God. We’re told that the Lord was with him and let no word of his fall to the ground.
To truly follow God’s voice, we have to learn to answer to another name. We have to acknowledge another identity. Otherwise, we run the risk of following other voices. Voices that tend to deceive us. Voices that lead us to our destruction. We see this in the second reading. Here, St. Paul explains to the Corinthians why it is improper to fornicate. To lie with a prostitute is to treat one’s body, and the body of another, as nothing more than instruments for pleasure. But the body is more than a instrument. It has another identity. It is called by a deeper name. One that expresses a higher dignity. Your body, writes Paul, is the temple of the Holy Spirit.... You are not your own property; you have been bought and paid for. (By this, Paul is, of course, referring to the price paid by Christ on the wood of the Cross.) Your body, then, is not a tool. It is a temple. That is why you should use your body for the glory of God.
In order to answer God’s call, and to resist being seduced by other voices, I need first to learn to acknowledge my own proper identity. My name before God. But isn’t this a form of slavery? Or oppression? By allowing God to call me by whichever name God wants, am I not denying my own true self? Careful consideration of our gospel reading today shows us that this is not a valid objection. In the gospel, Jesus changes the name of Simon, the son of John, and the brother of Andrew. But notice how Jesus goes about doing this. He doesn’t just arbitrarily pluck a name out of thin air. The reading tells us that first, Jesus looked hard at him. Jesus sized him up. Jesus gazed into the depths of his very soul. And only then did he proclaim that Simon should be called Cephas, a name that means Rock. Our proper name before God is not some random word. Rather, it describes who we really are. Who we are meant to be. It is our true self. The only self that has any real value. The self that finds its identity in God.
But if all this is true–if we can only respond to God’s call by learning our true name–then the question remains: How do we do this? How do we learn our name? Again, the gospel is instructive. Perhaps even surprising. For we live in a world that often tells us how important it is to make a name for ourselves. To build up ourselves. To find ourselves. Books have been written on the subject. Movies have been made. For many people, this is what spirituality is all about. Self-actualisation. It’s all about me, myself, and I!
But the gospel shows us a different way. How did the first disciples find their own true names? How did they discover their deepest desires? They did this not by looking intently at a mirror. Instead, they did what John the Baptist did. In the reading, we’re told that when Jesus passed him by, the Baptist stared hard at him, before saying, Look, there is the lamb of God. The first disciples learned to do the same. At first, when Jesus asked them what do you want?, they didn’t quite know how to answer. But then they proceeded to spend much time with the Lord. To come and see. And as they saw–as they continued to gaze intently on Jesus–their appreciation of who he was began to grow. First, they recognised him as a Rabbi, a teacher. Then, later, the Christ. And, it is only in this gradual recognition of who Jesus really is, that the first disciples discovered their calling. After spending a day with Jesus, they became his followers. What began as nothing more than a day-trip turned into an adventure unto eternity. We learn our true names only by first looking at Christ, and by learning his name. Who he is for us.
And this is what this whole season of Ordinary Time is about. Ordinary doesn’t mean unimportant. Ordinary Time is a season for us to do what John the Baptist and the first disciples did. To gaze intently upon Jesus. Even to stare hard at him. To allow the mystery of his life, death and resurrection to penetrate into our hearts. To learn who he really is for us. And, in so doing, to discover who we are meant to be for him.
Sisters and brothers, as we embark on this exciting season in the Church’s calendar, by what name is God calling you today?