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On Prophetic Vocations!

October 3, 2019 Frontpage No Comments


A reader of this column asks about the idea of prophetic name changes, namely instances where God — when He bestows a divine vocation — changes their names.
Of course, we all get a little slice of this prophetic name changing when we are baptized. The Romans and Greeks who had pagan names would acquire the names of Christian martyrs upon Baptism and among Christians that’s how they would be called — not Apollonius but Paul, not Mercury but John.
In fact, that’s how the Popes started changing their names in imitation of St. Peter, when a man named Mercury was elected to the papal throne in the year 533 and thought it highly inappropriate to keep the name of a pagan god.
Of course, we are all very familiar with St. Peter having his name changed from Simon to Cephas (Rock), and on this cephas Christ would build His Church (Matt. 16:18).
Yet what is more amazing is how often God the Father and God the Son did this throughout salvation history. We will start from the top:
Some random guy to Elijah: The truth is, we really don’t know what Elijah’s real name was…we only know him as the prophet who successfully fought the demon Baal on Mount Carmel, taunting the cultists as they first slaughtered an ox and then offered their own blood to have fire spring from their altar. Elijah in turn soaks his altar with a sacrifice and in water, and God responds not only by producing fire but ending a drought over the land of Israel (1 Kings 18).
Jacob to Israel: Jacob wrestles with God, or at the very least Jacob wrestles with an angel (Genesis 31). Or a man? The truth of the matter is that we don’t really know. It was night, and Jacob wrestled throughout the night. Jacob was the stronger of the two, but the “man” dislocated Jacob’s hip and still Jacob would not let the man go until he blessed Jacob. Thus in Jacob’s renaming, he affirms the victory of his opponent not to be something of his own strength, but of God’s — hence the meaning of the name Israel: “God is victorious.”
Abram to Abraham: Here’s another popular one. “Neither shall thy name be called any more Abram: but thou shalt be called Abraham: because I have made thee a father of many nations” (Genesis 17).
One of my favorite observations is that at the Sea of Galilee, the sand on this massive freshwater lake really isn’t sand at all, but millions of tiny seashells. When God tells Abraham that his descendants will be as countless as the sands of the sea in Genesis 22, one can’t help but think of all these tiny seashells — pink, blue, black, white, round, fat, thin, pointy, new, old…that’s us!
Sarai to Sarah: Presaging the Blessed Mother’s visit to Elizabeth and the “clump of cells” more commonly known as St. John the Baptist, Abraham’s wife also plays a role in salvation history, conceiving a child in advanced age in Genesis 21.
Solomon to Amiable to the Lord: Here’s a neat one. In 2 Samuel 12, David and Bethsabee have a child named Solomon, and God loves Solomon right from the start. The prophet Nathan takes a look at Solomon and he is promptly renamed Jedidiah, which means “beloved of the Lord.” Solomon had to be a very cute baby.
James and John to Sons of Thunder: My sons would consider this name change to be — in their words — so metal (the new word for cool, I guess). This is in Mark 3, too . . . which isn’t exactly known for its literary flourish. One expects them to be riding around Judea with Harley-Davidsons and the wind in their face with names like that!
Simon to Peter: This one also qualifies for a name change that is “pretty metal” at the end of the day. Jesus chooses the weakest of the apostles, points to him and says YOU ARE ROCK. Not made of rock, not the stuff of which rock are made. Not even rock and roll; just Rock. I mean, the Son of Thunder might not be envious of such a name, but for the first Pope? Not bad.
Saul to Paul: This one is a little bit more dubious. It is commonly believed that Saul’s name was changed the moment he was thrown from his mount — and Scripture doesn’t say whether this was a horse, camel, donkey, etc. In truth, most men of the time would have had two names: one Greco-Roman, the other Hebrew. What is significant is that Saul is not called Paul until he is visited by Ananias in Acts 9, where Paul’s ministry was to preach to the Gentiles — an item of serious theological debate during the First Council of Jerusalem. Despite the public rupture with St. Peter, both men would travel to Rome and establish the Christian community there — and both would endure martyrdom.
Mary to Full of Grace: This is my favorite one, and it is often missed by biblical commentators (and by many of our Protestant cousins). In Luke 1:28 the Archangel Gabriel visits a frightened 15-year-old girl in Nazareth and tells her: “Chaire, kecharitomene!” — Not exactly “Hail Mary!” like we are used to, but in a more literal sense: “Hail, you who have perfected the quality of grace before I came here.”
In fact, Mary was so troubled by this it scares her! Gabriel had to think quickly on his feet. “Mi fovou, Miriam!” he has to call her by name, “Fear not, Mary!” To the Mother of God, no less, the Archangel Gabriel has to tell the one who will stomp the head of the serpent not to fear, “for thou has found grace with God” and effectively repeating what he says in Luke 1:28, but in a slightly different way.
You see, here the Greek word “charin” is a really delicate and complicated word, alluding to the “grace” of kecharitomene but also with a few other meanings. Such grace here follows naturally, it is almost a “by the grace of God” or by God’s pleasure.
Translators of the word into English will often use it as correlative to “for this reason” or “because” or “for the sake of” — significant for the sole fact that Gabriel’s intention was not that Mary won some grand cosmic lottery or that God magicked something into Mary to make her who she was. Mary is Full of Grace, a compelling, even rational form of grace that is both by her natural will and her fiat to Gabriel the assent of her rational will.
That’s powerful, because Mary could have said “no” to Gabriel in Luke 1:29. Think about that! The entire salvation of humanity hung on the fears of a 15-year-old girl because the Archangel Gabriel — the best diplomat of the angelic host! — frightened Mary with what might only be described as his enthusiasm for the moment.
Truthfully, it is kind of funny. Here is Gabriel about to announce the most significant event in history where the salvation of a race hangs on a single word from this young girl, and the reveal is so marvelous and incredible, Gabriel manages instead to scare Mary to pieces — and Gabriel is compelled to add: “Hold on! Fear not!”
Of course, it is important to remember that all prophetic vocations are about the coming of the Messiah. In short, Jesus already came, so there is no need for the prophets. The modern Popes — imitating St. Peter and continuing the tradition of adopting Christian names — are not “prophets” in that or any other sense. Rather, they are signaling their new vocations as the Holy Father.
One will see religious do this all the time: priests, brothers, and nuns taking on new names in light of their vocational roles. The difference here, of course, is that one names themselves rather than being named by God — but the reflection of the biblical tradition of old remains present in some small way.

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