The Deepening of Faith and Love

Pat Conlan, OFM, looks at the development of reverence for the Holy Name in Christian history.

The symbol of Holy Name has come back into prominence with Pope Francis. His coat-of-arms includes the name IHS within the rays of a golden sun. This represents his career as a Jesuit. But the use of this symbol has a long history and the Franciscans were very involved in the later stages.

The symbol includes two elements – IHS and the radiant sun. The latter came very late in the story. In the centuries after Christ, all writing was done in capital letters. The name of Jesus became IHCOUC. I stood for J, H for long E, C for S, although S took its own place later on. Paper was scarce and expensive, so it became common to shorten well-know words such as Jesus. The fact that the word had been shortened was indicated by a line overhead. Thus IHCOUC became IHC, slowly turning to IHS. By about the year 800 lower case letters were replacing capitals, giving the form ihs. Soon this was written in Gothic type like ihs. It was soon noticed that the line indicating a contraction and the upper stroke of the h formed a cross and this is the variety that has become normal today. It is usually printed in red, the colour associated with Christ who spilled out His blood for our sakes. In another variant such as on the coat-of-arms of the Jesuits and of Pope Francis, the cross has moved to the centre bar of a capital H. Many have put different interpretations on IHS such as “I Have Suffered” or “Jesus Homo Salvator” (Jesus, Man and Saviour). These are matters of personal devotion.

The Holy Name was sacred right from the start of the New Testament where an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to call the baby Jesus, a name that translates as “God is salvation”. As we are reminded in the second chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names so that all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld should bend the knee at the name of Jesus.” In the Letter to the Colossians, Paul encourages us “never to say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” In the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles were “happy to suffer for the name of Jesus.” Despite advice to the contrary, Paul is willing to go up “to Jerusalem to suffer and even die for the sake of the name of Jesus.” Peter reminded his hearers that “those who call on the name of the Lord would be saved.” St Stephen, the first martyr, died with the name of Jesus on his lips. The tradition of martyrs dying while calling out the name of Jesus continued with the early martyrs, particularly St Ignatius of Antioch, thrown to the wild beasts by the Emperor Trajan around 110 AD. His devotion inspired St Ignatius of Loyola to call his followers the Society of Jesus and adopt the IHS as the seal of his order.

Growing Devotion

While the martyrs turned to the name of Jesus for strength, once Christian thinkers began writing after the time of persecution, their attention soon centred on devotion to the name of Jesus. St Gregory Nazianzen wrote, around 380, of the need to respect the Holy Name, a mighty power to use against the devil. At the same time St Ambrose, in giving the role of various parts of the body, wrote of the knees having the duty of bending to the Holy Name, the powerful Name given to us by the Father. His contemporary, St Augustine, often mentions devotion to the Holy Name, a name that only those who genuinely love Him can pronounce. We must taste the Holy Name in order to experience its sweetness. Augustine also warns us never to take the name of the Lord Jesus in vain. In doing so we will sound like boisterous frogs with a raucous croak, as in the second Plague in Egypt.

Writing around 440 St Peter Chrysologus wrote a classic passage on the Holy Name that was often quoted right through the Middle Ages. “You shall call His name Jesus, because in this Name we adore the entire majesty of the Godhead. All who dwell in the heavens, those who abide upon the earth, and every one of those who are held in the depths of hell, bow down prostrate to this Name. This is the Name which gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, agility to the lame, speech to the mute and life to the dead. The power of this Name forced the mastery of the devil entirely from the bodies of the possessed.” By 500 the normal conclusion of prayers in the liturgy had become variants of “through Jesus Christ Our Lord”.

While theologians and preachers continued to stress the importance of the Holy Name, the next major figure to spread that devotion was St Barnard of Clairvaux, who died in 1153. He was a great friend of St Malachy of Armagh. Later authors often quote him. He describes the Holy Name as the Name most excellent, the Name above every other Name. “It is salvation, unction and glory. It enlightens when it is preached, nourishes when it is contemplated and soothes when it is invoked. The food of the soul will be dry unless it is seasoned with the oil of the Holy Name. The Name of Jesus is honey in our mouths, melody to our ears and jubilation in our hearts.” Despite the friendship between Malachy and Bernard, devotion to the Holy Name does not seem to have entered the Irish devotional tradition during the Middle Ages. There is great devotion to the Crucified Christ. The instruments of the Passion frequently appear in art rather than any variant of IHS.

Moving into the thirteenth century, that friend of St Francis, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), was very devoted to the Holy Name and developed an imagery that remained popular for at least five centuries. He pointed out that the Holy Name had two syllables, five letters, three vowels and two consonants. He saw the two syllables as a sign of the two natures of Jesus, human and divine. The three vowels indicate the place of Jesus in the Trinity. The two consonants point to the two elements of Christ’s humanity, the body and soul. In a more obscure reference, the pope derives the word “sum” from the Name. This translates as “I am”, a reference to the name of God as given to Moses. It was also under Innocent III that permission was given for the first time to celebrate a Mass of the Holy Name. Forty years later an office of the Holy Name was approved. Finally bowing the head when the name of Jesus occurred in the liturgy came during the Council of Lyons in 1274. At the same time Gregory X wrote to the Master General of the Dominicans asking him to promulgate the decree on reverence to the Holy Name. John of Vercelli, Master General, took this request seriously and wrote a pastoral letter to the friars stressing the wish of the Pope.

St Francis’ Influence

Whether it came from Pope Innocent or something that he picked up from his mother, who was a very spiritual person, devotion to the name of Jesus became a core part of the life of St Francis of Assisi. In his life of the saint, St Bonaventure records in chapter ten of his Legenda Maior that when Francis heard or pronounced the name of Jesus, he was filled with an inner joy and seemed completely changed exteriorly as if some honey-sweet flavour had transformed his taste or some harmonious sound had transformed his being. He ordered his brothers to collect up and carefully put in a special place any bit of paper bearing the name of Jesus. He later applied this to every piece of paper with writing on it, since it might have one of the letters that make up the Holy Name. He also used the Holy Name in chasing out devils. In chapter twenty five of the first book on Francis by Thomas of Celano, it is recorded that, when Francis was asked to expel a demon from the wife of a good man in San Gemini, he gathered the friars around him to pray and then said to the demon: “In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ I command you to come out from her” which he did immediately.

Similarly Thomas, when dealing with the First Crib at Greccio in chapter thirty, mention that he often called Christ the babe from Bethlehem rather than Jesus that night. In saying that word he filled his mouth with sound but even more with sweet affection. He seemed to lick his lips whenever he used the expression “Jesus” or “babe from Bethlehem”, tasting the word on his happy palate and savouring the sweetness of the word. Francis also handed on one of his favourite prayers: “We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches throughout the world.” Francis also prayed directly to Jesus by name, such as on the occasion of the stigmata when he asked: “My Lord Jesus Christ, I ask you to grant me two graces before I die – to feel in my body and soul that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained during Your Passion – to feel in my heart that excessive love with which You were inflamed in willingly enduring such sufferings for us sinners.”

Brother Giles, one of the close companions of Francis, was also devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus and was wrapped in ecstasy when he heard it. Reputedly Pope Gregory IX wanted to test this and deliberately mentioned the name in the presence of Giles. He was immediately transported into the depths of divine delight.

In further articles I will look at how the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus grew to become a definite part of Franciscan spirituality and mission.