The Dignity of a Name
A few month's ago I attended an art convention in downtown LA and as I was making my way through the exhibits holding my newborn son one of the artists approached me. We talked about children mostly and he asked me what my son's name was. I told him his name was Joshua Obadiah Jones. The man with a puzzled look on his face asked quietly, "Are you Jewish?" I smiled and said no. He asked where I was from, then about my wife. Then I explained that I was Catholic and that we had named him Joshua meaning "God saves" and Obadiah meaning "servant of God" or "worshipper of God".
This brief encounter got me thinking about names and their importance. Not only do our names help us determine our familial lineage and our unique personal identity, but they give us a certain human dignity.
My wife tells an interesting story about her name. When her mother was about nine months pregnant she fell down on her belly and they thought the baby wasn’t going to make it since there wasn’t any movement. Her grandmother prayed and asked God to save this tiny life and that in return she would name the child after Jesus. When the baby was born and they found out it was a girl, they struggled at first at how they would fulfill the promise, but eventually they decided to name her Johana de Jesús—Johana meaning “God’s precious gift” and de Jesús meaning “of Jesus”.
This is more than just a name it is also her identity, who she is. She—like each of us—is a beloved child of God in Christ Jesus. How important it is for us to remember this identity, that we are sons and daughters of God.
I remember another experience when I came across a homeless man asking for money at a gas station. As he approached me with his request I first asked him his name, which was Elias. This was more than just a formality, but a way to restore his dignity. He was no longer a random faceless vagabond, but a human being, a brother. It changed the way I saw him and treated him.
The Nazis in World War II figured out quickly how to dehumanize their prisoners in the concentration camps, by taking away their names and giving them numbers (Primo Levi talks about this and his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz). The Bible testifies to this as well, when in the book of Revelation the wicked ones are marked with the sign of the beast, a number.
My wife’s name reflects upon her the dignity given her by God who sees her as precious in His eyes. We chose a name with a meaning for our first born son, because we believe that through him God will bring love and joy. The homeless man’s dignity was restored by simply asking his name. Our names are important and help bestow upon us a dignity unique to human beings.