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What’s in a Holy Name?

What’s in a Holy Name?

written by Terri C. Pilarski

Numbers 6:22-27

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” . So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.


Luke 2:15-21

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.


My mother gave me a name that for her was different and unusual. I come from a long line of women named Agnes or Martha, or Hannah. All of my mom’s friends were naming their daughters Debbie, which was the most popular girl’s name the year I was born. My name, Terri, was unique for my mother. Until I was an adult, I did not know another girl named Terri, although I met one or two boys who spelled their name Terry.


When I was nine my name changed. My mother was divorced and remarried. The man she married adopted my brothers and me and in the process my name changed. And not just my surname, but my middle changed too. I don’t know why my middle name was changed on the birth certificate issued with the adoption, but it was shortened from Lynnette to Lynn. Terri Lynn Cole was my new name. 


I considered keeping my name when I married instead of changing it to my husband’s last name. But I didn’t. My name had already changed and I had no particular attachment to it as it was. So I took my husband’s last name. Terri C. Pilarski is the name I have used for some thirty-five years now.  Well, except for about three years when I was known online by my blogging pseudonym, back in the day when bloggers masked their identity behind clever names and blog titles. 


What’s in a name? The ancient people believed that knowing a person’s “true” name gave one control over that person. Which is one reason why people on social media use pseudonyms. It’s easier to say what one thinks if people do not know who you really are. Having power over another may be why the name of God has been elusive throughout the ages. YAWEH, I Am, Elohim, and Lord are all ways that ancient people knew God, and sometimes avoided saying the name of God out of respect or awe of, or fear for, the power of God’s Being.  


However, scripture tells us that it was important to God that in the incarnation, the incarnate one be named. An angel told Mary and Joseph to name their son, the incarnate one, the Emmanuel, “Jesus.” And, on the seventh day after his birth, they named in the traditional naming ritual for Jewish boys. What is it about this Holy Name that was so important?


I’ve never particularly liked my name. I find it simple and boring. No easy nicknames, no sophisticated longer version, no childhood name that becomes an adult name. Even though my middle and last name has changed twice, Terri has always remained the same. I suppose I could have changed it legally, but it seemed overly complicated to teach people to call me by a new name. Besides, it’s the name my mother gave me, and for that reason, I have kept it. It’s the name she wanted for her baby girl. I don’t have to like it to appreciate that it was important to her.


I have also had a difficult time with the name Jesus. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the descendent of Mormon pioneers, I grew up in the LDS church. My family left the LDS church when I was fifteen and I spent sixteen years away from organized religion. Living in the west, rural Midwest, and Texas, formed in me the notion that the word Jesus meant a certain kind of born again Christianity that conveyed a more narrow understanding of God and religion than what I knew in my heart. For me this means that I have had a complicated relationship with the name Jesus. For a long time I preferred Christ. Mostly I referred to God not Jesus. But that is just a reflection of my poorly formed understanding of the incarnation and what God did in becoming human flesh and naming this incarnate being. 


Ordained for twenty years, I have meditated on and preached about Jesus the Christ every Sunday. I have pondered the impact of the Incarnate One on me and on all of human kind. And I have been transformed. Saying Jesus no longer causes me to cringe from associating the name with prejudice and bias about who belongs and who does not. I now hear in this name, Jesus, the great love of God for all humankind. A love so deep and expansive that through this name God knows every human being and loves them for who they are. This Word made flesh loves each and every human being as God’s own beloved, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, or whatever values and principles guide one’s life. Because in the incarnation God came to live among us, to be one of us, to know us more fully, that we might know God more fully, and that we might learn to love one another more like God. 


As a new decade begins, I pray that I continue to learn how to love more like God. That we, all of humankind, can continue to develop the capacity to value, embrace, and even love the many different expressions there are of being human. I pray that we can see in those differences expressions of God’s self. I pray that we will not live from our fears, but from hope and a willingness to be playful and creative in the same way God is playful and creative. I pray that we will embrace the blessing God has bestowed upon us, in God’s Holy Name, Jesus the Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.


Photo: Children singing and using sign language to tell the story of the Incarnation


The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, is the Rector at Christ Church in Dearborn, MI.



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Jay Croft

The children are making the sign for “mother” in American Sign Language.


That’s correct. Our pageant director teaches the children to sign one hymn each year, usually the closing hymn.

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