What’s in a Name?

Second Sunday in Lent, March 1st, 2015
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

I never thought too much about names until my husband, Tenny, and I were expecting our first child.  We had both agreed that we didn’t want to know whether we were having a girl or a boy, which meant we had to pick out two sets of names.

Looking at the names that populated our respective family trees, I found some nice combinations – but for one reason or another, they were rejected.  For a boy, my favorite first and middle names were James and Carter, but this was around 1980 and as you might imagine, every time we tried that name out on friends or family, we got the same reaction: You want to name your child Jimmy Carter?  Well, no.  That’s not what we had in mind.


For someone who makes decisions fairly easily, I agonized over the decision of naming of our child.  We finally decided to wait and see what our baby actually looked like, thinking that the perfect name would come to us, then.  But it didn’t.  On the 7th and last day of my stay in the hospital, we had to decide on something for the birth certificate or else we wouldn’t be able to take our baby daughter home with us.  So, we named her Mary Carter Wellford with the nickname of “Cary”.

Unfortunately for us, both sets of grandparents weighed in with disapproval of the nickname since both had had negative experiences with people named Cary.  We stuck with that name, anyway, but after the first year of her life, we seriously thought about changing her name to something that actually suited her personality – something like “Demanda”!

As you know, Biblical names are very important and even more important if God is involved in the naming or renaming process.  He was known as Abram when God called him to leave his family home and go to an undisclosed, uncharted place of promise.  His wife was known as Sarai.  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” urged God. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing; …and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).  Abram was 75 years old when he heard God speak those words to him.

He was 99 years old when God appeared to him again to renew what he had promised to Abram, but which had still eluded him.  He and Sarai had not been able to conceive a child; and by the way we count, their time to do so had passed quite awhile ago. They were no doubt losing faith in God’s promise to make nations and kings from their offspring.

As you know from studying the Bible, most names mean something.  The characters in the Bible have names that usually tell a story about how or why they were born.  For example, Adam is a Hebrew name meaning “from the ground”.  The name Moses means “drawn out of the waters”. Isaac means “laughter” because his 90-year old mother, Sarai, laughed when she overheard God tell her husband that she would be with child.  Abram means “exalted father” and Sarai means “contentious”.

Can you imagine how embarrassed Abram must have been every time he introduced himself?  With a name that means “exalted father” he must have constantly had to field questions about how many children he had or if he had really lived up to his name.  If you remember, Abram did have a son by Sarai’s personal maid, Hagar.  His name was Ishmael which means “God hears.”

And for the longest time, Abram thought that Ishmael would be his only offspring.  Yet God had a different idea and finally made it clear to Abram that Ishmael was not the offspring from whom kings and nations would come.  That would be only from a child of Abram’s and Sarai’s making.

So God renewed his promises to Abram which was then followed up by the name change – nothing dramatic, just subtle.  Yet the implication was anything but subtle.  As one commentary put it: “God added (just) one letter to Abram’s name, the letter “h” which is a letter formed by breathing.  The word for breath or spirit in Hebrew is a word that consists basically of expelling air.  By adding the “h” to Abram’s and Sarai’s names, God breathed his spirit into Abraham and Sarah.”  (Daniel Grey Barnhouse, Genesis: A Devotional Exposition, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, pp. 133-134).

So, with the addition of an “h”, Abraham became a name meaning  “father of a multitude” and Sarah loses her name meaning contentious spirit and becomes “princess”.  The name change signified a character change, too, in which Abraham and Sarah were able to recommit themselves to God and to God’s purposes.  With their new names came a new relationship between them as husband and wife and a new relationship with God.

Names are really important, aren’t they?  Think how uneasy we feel when someone calls us by the wrong name or how mortified we feel when we realize we’ve called someone by the wrong name.  And how do we feel when someone tries to shorten our name to something more convenient to say?  I remember when my Biology professor and advisor in college thought he had the right to shorten my name from Eleanor to “Ellie”.  As timid as I was back then, I summoned up enough courage to let him know that only my grandmother had the right to call me that name.

When we baptize anyone here at St. Mary’s, you may have noticed that we use only the given names: the first and middle names.  A given name refers to the name that is given to a child, usually by its parents, at or near the time of birth, as opposed to the last name or surname which is inherited and shared with other members of the family.  The given name is also known as the Christian name when it is spoken at Baptism.

On January 9, 2011 after Pope Benedict baptized 21 infants in the Sistine Chapel, he captured international attention by reminding Catholic parents all over the world that they should be choosing Christian names for their children, meaning names that can at least be loosely traced to Christian sentiment in the Bible instead of names that are conferred on a whim or that combine interesting combinations of syllables or reflect parents’ interests in sports or Hollywood.

He stressed the importance of names and reminded his listeners that the catechism states that “God calls each one (of us) by name. Everyone’s name, (therefore) is sacred. The name is the icon of the person.  It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it” (CCC 2156, 2158).  I’m not a Catholic, but I embrace the belief in the sacredness of a name.

And in this morning’s story from Genesis, it’s easy to see the sacredness in the change of Abraham’s and Sarah’s names.  The change came with a direct renewal of their faith and their blessedness by God Almighty. According to Barbara Brown Taylor’s analysis, “…parallels (in our day and time) include kings, queens and popes who often take new names to signify their new status, as do those who enter religious life through the profession of monastic vows.  In every case the new name signals new purpose.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p 53).

How much have you thought about the significance of your Christian name?  How were you named and why was your name chosen?  I was named for my aunt and grandmother and my name apparently means “shining light”.  My husband has an interesting name: Ten Eyck.  It’s Dutch meaning “beside the oak.”  In the tradition of Virginia naming, he was named for his grandfather and great grandfather with whom he also shares a birthday.

When it comes to names, Barbara Brown Taylor asks an interesting question that bears thinking about, especially during Lent: “If we were to ask God for a new name, what might that be?  What new purpose would that signify?” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, p. 55).  How would it affect the way we live our lives or our relationship with each other and most importantly with God?