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God Reveals His Name

March 21, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


In last week’s installment of this series on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), we examined the fundamental significance of coming to know that all that we believe begins with God and ends with God. “I believe in God” is the first affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed, and likewise, Sacred Scripture begins with the words, “In the beginning God. . . .” (Gen. 1:1). Believing in the one, true God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength is central to the Catholic faith and is the basis for each of the 12 articles of the Creed. It is upon professing our belief in God that the “other articles help us to know God better as He revealed Himself progressively to men” (CCC, n. 199).
We went on to acknowledge that all of the attributes of God are perfections that flow from His very Being — He is all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and so on. God transcends all that our created minds can conceive.
So although we know that man can come to know of the existence of God through natural reason alone, it is equally true that our finite intellects are incapable of grasping but a brief glimpse, a fleeting shadow, of His incomprehensible essence. God, then, in His infinite love, gratuitously willed to make Himself more personally accessible to mankind. To accomplish this, in the early stages of salvation history “God revealed Himself to His people Israel by making His name known to them” (CCC, n. 203).
What is the significance of God’s desire to make known His name? The revealing of a name in ancient times was, in a sense, the disclosure of one’s inner self and life to others. By revealing His name, God wished to make Himself accessible to His people, to make Himself capable of being known and loved (cf. Fr. James Tolhurst, A Concise Companion and Commentary for the New Catholic Catechism, p. 18). As expressed in the Catechism, “a name expresses a person’s essence and identity and the meaning of this person’s life….To disclose one’s name is to make oneself known to others; in a way it is to hand oneself over by becoming accessible, capable of being known more intimately and addressed personally” (CCC, n. 203). Furthermore, “the gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy” (CCC, n. 2143).
Throughout Sacred Scripture, God “revealed Himself progressively and under different names, but the most significant revelation was made to Moses at the burning bush, where He spoke to him from the midst of the fire to tell him that He was the God of his ancestors, Who was faithful to His promises and looked with compassion on the suffering of His people whom He would deliver from slavery” (Tolhurst, p. 18). Notice that God said to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). Recalling our discussion of typology in a previous installment, could not God’s reference to these three great patriarchs in identifying Himself be a type of the Holy Trinity? Although an analysis of such an observation is outside the scope of this series, a cursory Internet search shows this indeed has been the conjecture of some.
Moses, hiding his face and afraid to look at God, asked the Lord what his response should be when the Israelites surely inquired as to the name of “the God of your fathers.” The Lord identified Himself to Moses as “I AM WHO AM” (Exodus 3:14a) and went on to instruct him: “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14b), or in biblical Hebrew, YHWH (Yahweh). The Catechism explains that “in revealing His mysterious name . . . God says Who He is and by what name He is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is a mystery” (CCC, n. 206).
Let us now take a moment to further examine God’s name as He gave it to Moses. The ancient Hebrew language in which the Old Testament was originally written did not include vowels. Thus, God’s four-letter Hebrew name was given as “YHWH,” and is known as the Tetragrammaton. By inserting vowels between the consonants, “Yahweh” is formed. As Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, explains in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, “Jehovah is God, the English name for the Hebrew Yahweh” (p. 291).
The admonitions “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Ex. 20:7) and “He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death” (Lev. 24:16) ultimately induced the Israelites not to pronounce the name God out loud for fear of accidentally taking His Divine Name in vain. Instead, they chose “to substitute for it the title ‘Adonai,’ meaning ‘the Lord’. . . or ‘Elohim’” (ibid., p. 291). In Greek, it is written Kyrios.
The revealed name of God, YHWH, is “at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what He is — infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: He is the ‘hidden God’ (cf. Isaiah 45:15), His name is ineffable, and He is the God Who makes Himself close to men” (CCC, n. 206). Now, what exactly does it mean when we say God’s name is ineffable? Fr. Hardon defines ineffable as “that which is incomprehensible. Only God is ultimately ineffable because only He cannot be fully comprehended by the finite mind” (ibid., p. 276). The fourth-century Doctor of the Church St. Augustine expresses this mystery as follows: “More true than our speech about God is our thinking of Him, and more true than our thinking is His Being” (De Trinitate, VII, 4, 7).
When God proclaimed to the Israelites that “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12) after having earlier revealed Himself as the “God of your fathers” (Exodus 3:6), He is, in effect, revealing “His faithfulness which is from everlasting to everlasting, valid for the past . . . as for the future. . . . God, Who reveals His name as ‘I AM,’ reveals Himself as the God Who is always there, present to His people in order to save them” (CCC, n. 207). Truly, He is a faithful God who never forsakes His people no matter how far they stray from His loving embrace.

Rich In Mercy

Let us now consider who we are in comparison to God. The Catechism tells us that “faced with God’s fascinating and mysterious presence, man discovers his own insignificance” (CCC, n. 208). It would be good to take a moment to consider and reflect upon the fact that except for God we would be nothing — we would not even exist. Yet even though we have been given the incalculably precious gift of our very existence, do not we reject God by our sinfulness on a daily basis, just as the Israelites “turned away from God to worship the golden calf” (CCC, n. 210)?
But He is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). For our part, we must but humbly approach Him for forgiveness in sacramental Confession, repent of our sins, and strive toward ongoing conversion. Indeed, as St. Paul tells us, God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:6).
To conclude this installment, we will consider the basic difference between God and His creatures. In a word, it is the unchangeableness of God.
As the psalmist says to the Lord when comparing Him to creatures: “They will perish, but Thou dost endure; they will all wear out like a garment. Thou changest them like raiment, and they pass away; but Thou art the same, and Thy years have no end” (Psalm 102:26-27). The Catechism beautifully expresses the truth that “God alone IS. . . . [He] is the fullness of Being and of every perfection, without origin and without end. All creatures receive all that they are and have from Him; but He alone is His very Being, and He is of Himself everything that He is” (CCC, n. 213).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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