These are perhaps some of the best-known words from the works of Shakespeare. The two star-crossed lovers struggle to deal with the fact that they come from competing families with competing names. They try to downplay that one is a Montague and the other is a Capulet. No matter how hard they try to deny it, their names do make a difference. It is their names that ultimately lead to their deaths, even though they try to deny that their names have power.
What is it about names that have such a strong impact on us?
I like to name inanimate objects. My husband’s and my first car, a blue 1969 Plymouth day Valiant, was named “Spot”. Why? Because Spot lived on the street in South Minneapolis; we did not have access to a garage. He was unprotected from the wintry, salty slush that splashed on him whenever a car drove past. Within a short time, the driver’s side door was covered in rust spots, spots that quickly developed into gaping holes. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Spot.
In both the Old and New Testaments, names carry significance. A powerful example of that is in Isaiah 9:6 when the prophet looks to the time when a child will be born who will be the one so long expected:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
There is no doubt that this long-expected Messiah, merely by virtue of the names assigned to him, will be the powerful. But power in the sense understood by the world is not a part of his name. This one to come will be strong, certainly, but he also will be a wise counselor, strong, eternal, and most of all, the bringer of peace. The names Isaiah ascribes to this Messiah may not be descriptive of the circumstances of the Savior’s birth, but we are told who he is and will be.
Names often are a significant part of the welcome received by a child as s/he becomes a part of a family, whether by birth or adoption. In my mother’s family, the middle name of the first-born girl is “Elizabeth”. My granddaughter is the 5th generation of women to have that as a middle name – merely by our name, we are situated in a family. We have a place. In my husband’s family, “John” alternates between being the first and middle name. Our son, John, is the 5th generation of men to be similarly placed in this continuity of kinship. Our children are adopted; they have also retained the names given to them at birth to remind them that they are also just as integrally a part of their birth families. Our names give us identity, place, and history.
In an interesting article written by Rabbi Andrew Davids for the Union for Reform Judaism and used in the “My Jewish Learning” website, he assets that there is more to a name than what we are called to distinguish us from the other children on the block when we were called home for dinner. Names have meaning; they have power; they can, in the case of the star-crossed lovers, mean death or they can mean life, when we are named a child of God:
God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, this biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming. . . . The rabbis caution us, however, to use the power of our voices and our words wisely. We must make certain that we use the divine gift of naming in a moral, appropriate, and thoughtful manner. We must also reject feeling that we are destined to live with and exemplify only the names given to us by others. Our tradition teaches that through our own choices and actions, each of us can name and rename ourselves. By doing so, each of us can bring honor to God, to the bestowers of our names, and to ourselves.
Renaming is certainly a part of the Biblical tradition with new names demonstrating how someone has changed. Jacob becomes Israel, “for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” Genesis 32;28. Jacob is no longer the trickster but is to become the founder of the Israelite nation. He has a new identity and purpose. Abram became Abraham; Sarai became Sarah. Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus as he changed from being a persecutor of the followers of Jesus to one of the strongest advocates. The change in name signified a change in the substance of the individual.
Our names can signify our essence and character; they can demonstrate who we have been and who we are becoming. When one of my best friends was confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church, she was able to give herself a third name, not for legal purposes, but to signify that she had matured in her faith. Mary Ann (Mimi) became Mary Anne Monica. Mimi was able to choose a saint who she admired and who lived out a faithful life, someone to whom Mimi could turn to as an example of a godly woman. A new relationship with God. A new name. I was jealous of Mimi acquiring a new name and wondered why that was not a part of our Lutheran tradition. Perhaps we should consider being re-named, or adding a new name, at significant moments during our lifetimes (not just traditionally when a woman marries.)
What is in a name? Actually, quite a bit more than Juliet would have us believe.
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I liked your story of Spot the Valiant. Many years ago, my sister drove a VW Bug named Rusty through the streets of Chicago. Needless to say, the name was appropriate.