What’s in a Name?

My recent foray into Genesis has made me think again about the importance of names. Certainly in Genesis, naming has a tremendous importance and names are believed to say something important about the identity of the person or place. And so, Adam named the animals in the Garden, and the Patriarchs set aside places where God had been revealed to them in some way by giving them names. If naming is a way of calling out and up someone’s identity, then renaming takes on a similar significance. So, Abram “the Exalted Father” becomes Abraham, “The Father of a Multitude” in light God’s promise to make him the ancestor of a great nation. And, Jacob, “He Who Grabs the Heels,” or “Supplanter,” is renamed Israel, “He Who Wrestles with God” after his epic wrestling match with a stranger who is later revealed to be God. 

This tradition of marking a change in life with a change in name has been common throughout Western civilization. It was customary in many countries for kings and queens to take a new name upon ascending the throne. And historically, it was common for new Christians to take on a new name when they were baptized, or when Christians would take a monastic tonsure or be ordained as priests or bishops. 

Thinking about all this, I thought it would be interesting to reflect what my name means to me. I’ve always loved my first name, Matthew. It comes from the Hebrew Mattityahu, via Greek and Latin, and means “Gift of the LORD.” My mom always took my name seriously, and regularly said to me, “You are God’s gift.” My parents decided to have me at an exciting time in their lives, when they were feeling spiritually renewed and my dad was discerning a vocation to ordained ministry. My name is reflective of this time in their life when there was so much newness and growth. I feel privileged, not only to have this meaningful name, but to have been born to parents who took it seriously and who engaged with me as a gift from God. If only all children could have such blessings! As I’ve matured, I’ve also seen my name as a kind of vocation: How can I be a gift to someone today? How can I bless someone today? And so, I love the fact that I my given name is a meaningful one, one that exists as both a gift to me and a challenge. (In that way I sometimes see it as a kind of icon for my life, if not a sacrament.)

I’ve had a rockier relationship with my middle name, Gilbert, which was my maternal grandfather’s given name. As a kid I thought it sounded funny and I was always embarrassed about it. (Not even Gilbert Blythe could rehabilitate it for me!) But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate this connection to my grandfather. I never knew him well — he died when I was twelve and had been very much “an old man” for some time before that — and we certainly have lived very different lives, and yet somehow I feel of all my grandparents, he’s the one I might take after most. As the family stories have it, as a kid he was known for his intelligence and he channeled that into running a very successful farm. While his responsibilities kept him close to home, it seems he had an insatiable curiosity about the world and a love of learning I can definitely relate to. He may have stayed close to the farm, but the farm was not his world. He loved his Life and National Geographic magazines, scoured flea markets for old books, and played jazz music from the radio for his dairy cattle. And yet I also know that a lot of this supposed affinity could be projection. Because I wasn’t close to my grandfather, he — and the family legacy he represents — is a mystery to me. Much as I realized the other week that the biblical figure Abraham can easily act as a cipher for our own psychology, there’s a good chance this sense of connection with my grandfather may say more about my longing to understand how I fit in to my family than it does grandpa. As it happens, my mom tells me I actually take more after my grandfather’s brother, but cipher or no, I’m grateful to share my grandfather’s name.

Finally, my family name, Root. It’s an odd name: a common, monosyllabic word, but a fairly uncommon family name. There’s something about the sounds in it that I’ve always found grating. (This is of course totally subjective — I have no idea where the negative sound symbolism came from!) My ambivalence about my last name was exacerbated by it being used as a taunt by my high school bullies, and discovering in university that it’s a rather rude sexual euphemism in Australia. But over the past couple years I’ve begun to lean in to my last name. One of the most powerful images for me of living a life of faith is the tree. Trees need to grow down, to develop deep, broad, and wide root systems, in order to grow up and out. Being deeply rooted allows a tree to grow tall and strong, to become the majestic life-giving creation that it is called to be, and to withstand life’s storms, floods, and droughts. This is exactly how I see the life of faith. This is how I increasingly understand my own life and vocation. And so I love the fact that this image is embedded into my name.

This has been a fun exercise for me. I encourage you to give some thought to your name and to what it means and symbolizes for you. If you want to, feel free to share in the comments!

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