St Bernardine’s Theology of the Holy Name

Lomán MacAodha OFM

The proclamation of Jesus Christ as Saviour was the nerve-centre and the climax of Bernardine’s missionary preaching.  He represented Jesus as Saviour visibly and graphically by means of a tablet bearing the monogram of the Holy Name.  The Holy Name of Jesus summed up in his eyes all mysteries of salvation from the eternal naming of the Son as (Saviour) until his last member is signed with his Name in a definitive fashion as the Son hands over his kingdom into the hands of his Father.

The devotion was not new in the Church.  It had its origins in the early Christianity of the New Testament; traces of it are found among the archaeological remains of the early Church; penetrating comments on the saving power of the Name are found in the writings of the Fathers; in the East the invocation of the Name formed the basis of the hesychast movement of spirituality which is still vigorous today.  St. Bernard gave a powerful impulse to the Holy Name devotion and the hymn. The hymn, Jesu dulcis memoria  which was ascribed to him but is really the composition of an English Cistercian of the late 12th century – had a profound and lasting influence on popular piety.

Blessed John Colombino had founded a congregation at Siena in 1354 whose members were popularly known as “Gesuati;”  the reason for this was perhaps the salutation with which they greeted the people:  “Praised be Jesus Christ” or “Long live Jesus Christ,” or more likely because of their fervent preaching of Jesus.  Among the Franciscans St. Francis set example of a tender devotion to the Holy Name and this was developed later in the writings of Gilbert of Tournai (+ 1284).  It was from the writings of these men that Bernardine derived his doctrine regarding the Holy Name.

Devotion to the Name of Jesus was more than a private and rather sentimental devotion for Bernardine.  It was at the heart of God’s self- revelation to man and of God’s plan for creation.  Therefore, in each of his Latin Lenten courses he assigns the sermon to Palm Sunday, thereby adding his own distinctive contribution to the homiletic theme of the Kingship of Christ preached traditionally on this day.  From the vernacular courses it is clear and also significant that he preached on the Holy Name on Palm Sunday, the day which “initiated the triumphal victory of the whole Christian people”. This period commemorated the mysteries of Christ’s victory in his passion, death and resurrection and the people, having passed through the Lenten penance, come to share in his victory through sacramental confession and Easter communion.  Bernardine placed the whole exercise under the sign of the triumphant Name of Jesus.

The Holy Name of Jesus, for Bernardine, spans the history salvation from the beginning to end.  Salvation starts at the dawn of creation with the revelation to the angels of God’s plan in and for Jesus Christ and it ends as the last one of the elect is signed definitively with the Name of Jesus and is aggregated to the Kingdom of the saved before Christ consigns this to his Father.  Then God will be all in all.  It was on the cross, however, that the Son showed himself in fact and before all as the Saviour, as the “Jesus” of all men.  This led Bernardine to cross the vertical of the “h” in his monogram with a horizontal bar to show that it was Jesus and he crucified who was at the heart of the Christian mystery.

Even though he treats of the suffering and death of Christ in the greatest detail and at some length, his treatment is very sombre and always balanced by a clear conception of the ultimate of these sufferings, viz. a suffering which glorifies the Saviour of the universe. This finality is vividly brought out in a series of sermons which terminates the Quadragesimale de Christiana religione. Having treated at great length of the mystery of Christ’s cross and the Christian people’s share in it by means of the Easter communion, he shows that the goal of all religious practice is Christ leads his people to the glory of Paradise. This achievement of final salvation is entitled De Gloria Paradisi  and these ten sermons bring out the final, eschatological significance of the Name of Jesus.

For Christians, the glory of Paradise already begins with  the resurrection of Christ, their Head (Sermon LV11) because of Christ’s ascension into heaven and his enthronement at the right hand of the Father, his members already share in his glory and reign by means of the divine life of faith, hope and charity which he generates in them. If Christ is risen and reigns gloriously, then the members of his Body can expect with a well- founded confidence their own resurrection (cf. 1 Cor.15, 12-22) (Sermon LV111)

This brings Bernardine to a consideration of the kingdom and lordship of Jesus Christ which is ultimately founded on his supreme and universal primacy over all creation (Sermon Lix). This primordial role of Jesus is then related to the glory of the angels in the kingdom; Bernardine shows that the faithful angels attained to glory through their faith in and humble submission to the Word who was to be incarnated according to God’s eternal design. Conversely, Satan and his rebellious angels stumbled on to the corner-stone which God had laid down and were overcome in their opposition and expelled through the power of the Name of Jesus (Sermon LX).

The most wondrous grace and glory of the Mother of God call for the special elaboration – she who has a greater dignity than all the angels – because she was predestined from eternity to be the Mother of Jesus and consequently under him exercises a pre-eminent role in bringing the members of his Body to their perfection in the glory of Paradise (Sermon LXI). Bernardine goes on then to treat of the glory of the blessed in heaven who are saved through the mediation of Jesus the Saviour and thus come to share in his glory (Sermons LX11-LXV).

In order to round off his treatise on the glory of paradise which glory, as we saw, is opened to men by the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Saviour, and in order to relate this final stage of salvation history to the present moment, Bernardine ends with a sermon on the soldiers of Christ who set out to take the Kingdom of God by storm having received strength for this from above for they have been signed on ‘the forehead of their mind’ (cf, Apoc.14,1) with the name of the Lamb and with the name of the Father, for He it is who gives knowledge of the Son. The inscribing of the Name is effected by ‘the finger of God,’ the Holy Spirit. In the final analysis, therefore, those who follow the Lamb, Jesus, are signed with the single Name of the Blessed Trinity by means of faith in the Son, hope in the Father and love of the Spirit.

We may conclude then from the layout of the sermons at the end of the De Christiana Religione that Bernardine conceived of the final triumph of Christ and all His members, angels and men, under the sign, the ‘vexillum,’ of the Holy Name of Jesus. Palm Sunday is the day when the Church begins to commemorate this victory. He takes, therefore, as his theme the Holy name of Jesus suggested by the Epistle of the day (Phil.2,5-11). This links up with the title placed over the Cross by Pilate: Iesus Nazerenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jn.19,19) this inscription forms the basis of his treatment of the saving power contained in the Holy Name. Jesus is thus revealed as the triumphant Saviour predestined from eternity by the Father; He proves himself the Saviour of all ‘realiter et actualiter’ on the cross, pacifying and reconciling all, angels and men, by His blood (cf. Col.1, 19-20). His triumph is manifested in his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. He now exercises the lordship thus conceded Him, over that body which He has acquired and with which He shares progressively, according to the unfolding of history, that glory which only He, in the eternal counsel of God was destined to share with all creation.

In Bernardine’s conception then, the Name of Jesus embraces the whole mystery of salvation which is achieved only in the final glory of God’s elect.  To cling with faith, hope and love to this Name was to reach forward to the final recapitulation of all creation in Christ. It was also, by that very fact, to overcome all the anxiety, insecurity and tribulation of a cruel world which seemed to many to be falling into ruin.

Finally, because he conceived of the Name of Jesus in terms of the primacy of Christ and His victory over Satan and his rebellious spirits, Bernardine was able to offer to a society distraught by a ‘superstitious Satanism’ the true perspective of salvation which is founded on the victory of the God-man, a victory predestined from the dawn of creation and which is always active and actual for those who believe.