Mons. Ronald Knox on “The Divine Name”

There is a sort of magic about names; it does not come as a surprise, when St Paul tells us that the name of Jesus is high above every name, or when hymns of the holy Name, litanies etc. figure in the devotional life of Christendom. For the Jewish people the divine Name was a thing of mastery and of mystery – the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush, HE WHO IS>. The name of God and the power of God were intimately connected in their minds. A thing of mystery; “the great God”, they would say, “whose habitation is eternity, whose name is holy”. Our Lady herself, true to the instinct of her race, would not thank God for the privileges he had showered on her without making the same acknowledgment: “He whose name is holy has wrought wonders for me.”

To the Christians of the first age, the name of Jesus could have no mysterious associations. It was a name in common use, the Greek equivalent of Joshua. From the first it was recognized as a name of mastery; we even hear of magicians at Ephesus trying to exorcize a victim of diabolical possession, with the formula, “I conjure you in the name of Jesus, the name that is preached by Paul”. But the name did not often stand in isolation; much more commonly, the New Testament authors refer to our Lord by the title of “Jesus Christ”; and liturgy, as we know has preserved that tradition. And then suddenly, in the Middle Ages, something happens: preachers like St Bernard and St Bernardine of Siena begin to single out the holy name of Jesus for special veneration. But they no longer approach the subject with a sense of awe, but with a sense of intimacy. The holy Name is no longer something that terrifies them, but something that makes them feel at home.
You see, the use of a personal name has a fresh kind of magic about it; it creates familiarity. And when we fall in love, and all our experience takes on a sharper edge, and little things mean much to us, there is one Christian name in the world which casts a spell over eye or ear when we see it written on the page of a book, or overhear it mentioned in conversation. We are thrilled by the mere encounter of it. And it was with the sense of personal romance that people like St Bernard invested the holy name of Jesus. “Nor voice can sing, not heart can frame, Nor can the memory find, A sweeter sound than thy blest name …” And it is no longer to us, as it was to the Jews a name of unapproachable majesty – “no name in all the world so terrible”. It produces in us a sudden lightening of the heart, because we are in love.

But we are sometimes asked whether this devotion to the holy Name is altogether a healthy development. It has been criticized by non-Christians. And Christians, too, have had their doubts about it. After all, isn’t there something presumptuous about isolating the humanness of our Lord Jesus Christ in this way, and treating him as if he were a friend sitting in the room with you, who would look up at the sound of his name? True, he is everywhere present, but he is present as God – the God who created us, the God who will judge us. Ought we not to be falling down at his feet?

In the Imitation of Christ, in the second book of it, you will find the holy Name standing by itself fifty times in the course of some thirty pages, you will find a whole chapter about what the author calls “familiar friendship with Jesus”.

There are souls whose characteristic approach to the unseen is personal romance, with our Incarnate Lord for its object; so real to them that the very mention of his name sets them off day-dreaming into eternity. You will find nothing like it in any other religion – only Jesus invites you to be his friend. This attitude is encouraged and sanctioned by the Church. There are people who never lost their childhood’s instinct to turn to Jesus Christ as a Friend close at hand. For souls like this, it is as if the Resurrection had happened, but not the Ascension; he still stands beside them in the garden, and calls them by the way; as they sit at table, he comes to them breaking through the closed barriers of the centuries; still, on the mountain side they hear his voice asking, “Do you love me?”