December 17th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio

Texts: Isaiah 61: 1-8; Luke 1: 26-38

Tell Us Our Names

            You can read a story a hundred times.  You can hear it told over and over, year after year, and still miss a detail that, after the hundred and first time, suddenly leaps out at you.  That’s what happened to me earlier this season, when I reread the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, announcing that she would bear a child named Jesus.  We fixate on the angel, or the young woman receiving the announcement, or the issue of the virgin birth, or the child she will bear, all of them worthy of consideration.  But this year it was the greeting that leapt out at me.  It was the way Gabriel addresses Mary.  “Greetings, favored one,” the text says.  In Greek, it’s, “Chaire kecharitomene,chaire being the greeting, and Kecharitomene being the name by which Mary is addressed.  It’s a word, a name, found nowhere else in the New Testament, and indeed, nowhere else in all of Greek literature.  It’s particular to Mary, particular to the moment in which she finds herself.  Our Catholic friends might know that the word means “full of grace,” and indeed, that’s something of what it conveys.  But insofar as the name is singular, found nowhere else, it’s meaning is bottomless.  We can look up the meaning of “Mary,” or “Steve” or “Carleen” or “Joan,” and find a reasonably sure etymology of the word.  Kecharitomene belongs to Mary alone in her singularity, and while we can parse its meaning as best we can, it is untranslatable, because it belongs to her alone.  The events that follow, from a mysterious pregnancy to a troubled birth, from political exile through her son’s public ministry, and later, his trial and death, would be enough to undo most people.  I wonder if something about the encounter with the angel, and being given a new name, carried Mary through those moments, helping her to recall her deepest and best self.  I wonder if her new name, Kecharitomene, was one of things she pondered in her heart. 

            Were we to read this story with our Lakota friends out in South Dakota, they would likely have an immediate understanding of what is taking place in this encounter.  It’s a naming ceremony, a moment in which Mary is given a spirit name.[1]  It’s an honorific name that somehow captures the fullness of who she is, a fullness hidden until that moment even to her.  It’s something that traditional and indigenous cultures often practice, whereby in a ritual or ceremonial moment, individuals are given names that convey both who they are in all of their singularity and individuality, as well as who they might yet become.  Our Lakota friends refer to it as a spirit name, which for them, is far more important than their legal name given at birth.  To undergo a naming ceremony is to undergo a kind of second birth, a rebirth.  There’s often suspense and anticipation when the new name is given.  And tears are often shed after the spirit name is offered.  “You are ‘Takoda,’” friend to everyone, someone might hear.  “You are ‘Napayshni,’” the courageous one, another might discover.  “You are “Kecharitomene,” is what Mary hears in her own ceremonial moment with the angel.

            Thinking about Mary’s encounter with the angel led me to meditate on names and the power of identity – the ambiguity of names, the grace of new names, the violence and control that are sometimes implied in names.  We’re given names at birth by our parents, and often, though not always, we grow into those names, so that I can’t imagine being called “John” rather than “Steve.”  But as we travel through life, we come to have names attached to us, names that confer an identity upon us that may or may not be welcome.  It happens all the time.  Sometimes it has to do with vocation – you’re Jacob the baker or Monica the teacher or Edward the lawyer.  Sometimes it has to do with something you’ve done, or that has befallen you.  You’re the one that experienced this or that tragedy, the one who committed this or that transgression, the one who made this or that painful mistake.  Sometimes life itself names you – as an illegal resident, say, or as a convicted felon.  It’s hard to escape such a name.  Names such as those are branded on you, the way 24601 was branded onto the forearm of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables.  Those are naming ceremonies that have an insidious effect on our souls.

            Biblical writers and theologians have thought carefully about the vagaries of names throughout the centuries.  There’s a skepticism about proper names throughout the Bible that’s worth thinking about, and perhaps heeding.  In the book of Exodus, when Moses encounters God in the burning bush, Moses inquires with whom he is speaking.  “I am,” comes the response, as if to say, “I am that which cannot be named, who should not be named.  I simply am.”  Throughout the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, God is never given a proper name, instead being designated by four letters YHWH, or by titles, such as lord, almighty, the holy one, etc.  The insight behind that practice is that God is a reality that must not be named, for to affix a name is to define and control and limit a reality that cannot, finally, be controlled or defined.  And so the word “God” becomes a placeholder, a designation for that which overflows proper names, for that which spills over, exceeds, and outstrips the capacities of language to contain it. 

That fundamental insight from the Hebrew Scriptures is what led a whole tradition of mystical theologians to develop what gets called “Negative Theology,” or “Apophatic Theology.”  Now, I’m going to get abstract for a little bit, but stay with me – this is important, and I’m going somewhere, I promise.  Straight theology, so called “positive theology” trusts the capacities of language, at least up to a point, and so feels confident enough saying “God is this, God means that,” and so forth.  Negative theology does the reverse.  It operates by saying, “Whatever you say or think of God, that is what God is not.  If you can say it, or think it, then it cannot be God, because speech and thought are finite capacities, and God is infinite.  God exceeds the designation of every name, slipping and eluding those names.  That’s what led the great medieval theologian Meister Eckhart to offer his famous prayer: “I pray God to rid me of God,” which is to say, “I pray to that which I cannot name to rid me of that idol, that reduction, which attempts to place boundaries around whatever it finally is that we name “God.” 

            But if that’s true of God, might it not also be true of you, and of me?  If sometimes it’s necessary to have a negative theology as applied to God, might we also require a negative anthropology, applied to us?  Isn’t there something bottomless, something unfathomable, something dimensionless about your heart, your soul, your being, and mine?  Isn’t there something within us that always eludes our proper names and whatever qualities might be ascribed to us?  Isn’t there something within you, within me, that exceeds the names given to us, that exists as so much more than can be understood or articulated about us?  Is there not a reduction that comes when we’re assigned names by our culture?  That’s been especially true in this moment of identity politics, when it’s become all too tempting to treat each other according to real, but also superficial designations – as white people, or as black people, as straight folks, or as gay or lesbian or transgendered folks, as Christians, as Muslims, or as atheists, as affluent, as poor, as educated, as uninformed, as Republicans, as Democrats, or, as I heard about myself recently, as a “Commie.”  We may or may not be those things, but is there not also something within each of us that screams out “But that’s not who I am.  That’s not all that I am.”  Perhaps we require a negative theology of the soul, where we might say, alongside the medieval theologians, “if the politicos and lobbyists say I’m this, that’s what I’m not.”  Perhaps we need a way to twist free of the names and designations with which we’ve been saddled, in the name of preserving our interior freedom.  Maybe from time to time we could all benefit from being offered a new name, one infused with grace and understanding, one that speaks into the best of who we are and wish to be. 

            Most young people know about the casual naming ceremonies that occur in the hallways of high schools, or junior highs, or even elementary schools.  They know, better than many of us, what it is to be boxed in by a name, by an identity that they did not choose.  For a young person, there’s often no more painful experience than to be labeled – she’s just a theater kid.  He’s just a jock.  She’s just a book nerd.  He’s just a computer geek.  There’s such a violence, such confinement, built into that tiny phrase “just a…”  Young people, like everyone who experiences such casual naming ceremonies, rightfully rebel inside, often insisting that “I’m not just a….I am so much more.  So much more than you can see, so much more than you can understand, so much more than anyone gives me credit for.  I’m not just a….”

            Over Thanksgiving I had the pleasure of listening to R.J. Pallacio’s outstanding and beautiful novel for young people, called Wonder, which was recently adapted for film.  It’s about a boy named Auggie Pullman, who, because of a strange gene mutation, was born with a terribly disfigured face.  He’s like every other kid his age, save for the fact that when people first see him, they invariably grimace, or do a double take, or move to avoid him.  Auggie’s parents have tried to shield him from the cruelty of others by homeschooling him, but by 5th grade, it’s clear that if Auggie’s education will proceed, he’ll have to begin attending school.  What follows is a kind of meditation on the terror and anxiety of the casual naming ceremonies that young folks so often perform on one another.  Auggie is labeled a freak by his classmates.  He’s called deformed.  But often the names are more specific: Rat Boy.  Monster.  Freddy Krueger.  E.T.  Gross-out.  Lizard Face.  Auggie bears it – sometimes with a practiced stoicism, sometimes with anger and frustration, sometimes with pained confusion.  But over the course of the year, Auggie manages to win over his classmates with his humor, and with his spirit.  I think the reason for that is revealed in the final line of the novel, when Auggie’s mother, a fierce, protective, smart, and above all, loving woman, looks upon her son and marvels: “Auggie, you are a wonder,” she says.  I believe that the final line of the novel is another kind of naming ceremony.  And it’s something that Auggie had been hearing about himself his entire life, spoken with tenderness and love by his mother, but indeed, by his entire family.  “Wonder” stands as something far more than a quality.  It is a name that somehow managed to carry Auggie Pullman through some of the most trying moments of his young life.  Like Mary’s new name in the gospel of Luke, it’s a name that proves to be stronger than any name the other fifth graders can hurl at him.

            This past Tuesday, Lina Tuck and I accompanied a Guatemalan friend named Guisela to the courthouse in Hartford, for her immigration hearing.  The hearing went OK, but as we stood outside the courthouse waiting to get in, our attention was drawn to a demonstration occurring in the plaza in front of the courthouse.  A man named Mariano Cardoso had a deportation date, and a small crowd had gathered to draw attention to his case.  At one point, Mariano stood with his daughter, who turned toward the courthouse and said loudly: “This is my father.  This is my dad.  Don’t take him away from me.”  It was a powerful kind of naming ceremony, where Mariano’s daughter refused the names that had been affixed to her father – an illegal, an immigrant, a foreigner, an undocumented worker – reminding any who would listen of Mariano’s deeper identity as a human being, a man with two sons and a daughter who were already grieving his absence.  Lina, Giusela, and I looked on in tears as Mariano’s daughter reminded us all of an identity far deeper and truer than any of the designations that had been attached to Mariano through his ordeal.

            Little did I know that two days later, Mariano would arrive in Old Lyme, to take up residency in our church.  He and his son spent the night here on Thursday, and then waited most of Friday to learn if Mariano would be forced to stay.  Throughout the day, we witnessed a man who was under unimaginable pressure exhibit gentleness and grace and dignity, as he wondered if the courts would decide favorably.  And then at 3:01 in the afternoon, a stay was issued by the courts.  You should have seen Mariano smile when he learned the news.  I wish you could have been there when his family came rushing to Old Lyme shortly after that, to celebrate with him.  When they all stood in front of the Meetinghouse during the press conference, it was yet another naming ceremony that was taking place.  Mariano was not “just an immigrant,” “just an illegal resident,” or any of the other “just a’s….” that could be attached to him.  He was a man surrounded by a family who loved him, who needed him, who fought for him.  He was, and is, a man beloved and adored by those around him.  Standing before the cameras was a visible reminder of the deep humanity of Mariano and indeed, of his whole family.  But it was also a reminder to each of us to remember our own deep humanity during a time that threatens to dehumanize us all.  It was a naming ceremony for Mariano, but I believe it was also a naming ceremony for everyone who witnessed it, whether in person or from afar.

            There are times when it’s necessary to resist the names that are affixed to each one of us, insisting that we’re so much more than a reductive designation.  But there are also times that we need more than simple negation.  We need spirit names that call forth the deepest and best parts of who we are.  I believe the moment in which the angel offered Mary a new name isn’t necessarily particular to Mary.  Instead, I’ve come to think that in one way or another, in one guise or another, the angel comes to each of us, providing a name that reaches into the core of our being, a name we can carry with us through the depths of hell if we must.  “You are a wonder,” Auggie Pullman’s mother tells him.  “You are a beloved father,” Mariano’s family tells him.  “You are Kecharitomene, overflowing with grace,” the angel tells Mary. 

            Throughout the coming days, as we approach the manger yet again, I hope you spend time reflecting about your own spirit name.  There’s something within each of us that longs for such a name, that cries out to the angels around us: “Tell us our names.”  We require names that enable us to adore our own humanity, which allows us to adore the humanity of others as well.  “Tell us our names,” we say to the angel.  How does the angel reply to you?

[1] An idea I encountered from Kathleen Norris, “Annunciation,” found in Watch for the Light (Farmington: Plough Publishing House, 2001), pg. 48.

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