Commentary: Naming rites link parents to God’s creative work

St. Louis Post-DispatchJuly 26, 2013 

Naming rites and rituals are seldom in the news — except, of course, when the person in question will be the future king of England.

George Alexander Louis’ parents presented him with a name, but also with an identity. In selecting the name George, the young royals showed continuity with the British monarchy. Yet they also did something far greater than that: They offered a blessing to their son.

Most of the time, we’re more concerned with naming “rights,” the legal privileges of purchasing the right to advertise your brand on a sports stadium or something similar. Yet I don’t think we pay enough attention to the spiritual obligations and tasks associated with naming. Naming is more than just putting something down on paper. It is a holy task, an action deeply rooted in our human vocation. Naming rites — the practices by which the human family participates with God in acts of creation — ought to be celebrated by the faith community.

Names, and the rituals associated with naming, have deep spiritual roots. They are truly liturgical acts — the work of the people — and represent a way that we join in raising our voices to heaven in praising God.

When each of our four children were born, my wife and I had lists of possibilities. Since we had both been youth ministers, we also had a few names that we quickly rejected. I suspect teachers are like that as well. I won’t reveal the discarded names, but will say there were several that conjured up memories of sleepless nights chaperoning youth retreats. We entered the delivery room with ideas, but no firm decisions. We’re just the sort of folks who need to take a peek at the kid first, and then decide what she or he will be called.

We valued family names, and so each of our children carries a portion of our family story. And when our eldest daughter joins her hand in marriage this Saturday, she will join a family with its own rich heritage of names and nicknames. We couldn’t be prouder to see her take this step.

Naming joins us with God’s activity in the world. We participate with God as co-creators, identifying the good gifts that God has offered us, even if that good gift keeps us up all night and will cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition. Naming a baby is also a profoundly humbling act. It shouldn’t be done under undue influence, or under any influence for that matter. When you realize that you are giving a child a name that could potentially torment your child throughout middle school, you realize how critical it is you get this thing right.

Stop for a minute and think about that.

There are great naming stories in the Bible, including Luke’s account of the birth of John the Baptist. John’s father, Zechariah, was struck silent when he discovered that he and Elizabeth were going to be parents late in life. It was an understandable reaction. There is also the striking account of God calling the prophet Hosea to name his children by names that symbolically conveyed how God’s people had shifted away from covenant faithfulness. Two of Hosea’s children were named “Not loved,” and “Not my people.” Imagine what school must have been like for those kids.

And there is also the naming of Jesus, whose parents trusted in the never-ending promise of God. It’s a beautiful story, a reminder of the powerful nature of naming rites, and an invitation to parents everywhere to consider the awesome nature of naming.

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