Monday, September 22, 2008

Respecting the name of God

The Vatican has declared that the name of God should not be used in Mass. This is apparently not a new decision, but one that has been slipping, especially where the name "Yahweh" is concerned.

This was announced in a two-page letter from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, dated June 29 and addressed to episcopal conferences around the world.

"Yahweh" is a mispronunciation of the Tetragrammaton: YHWH, the four consonants of the ancient Hebrew name for God.

"As an expression of the infinite greatness and majesty of God, it was held to be unpronounceable and hence was replaced during the reading of sacred Scripture by means of the use of an alternate name: 'Adonai,' which means 'Lord,'" the Vatican letter said. Similarly, Greek translations of the Bible used the word "Kyrios" and Latin scholars translated it to "Dominus"; both also mean Lord.

You can read more here.

It brings up an interesting issue: respecting the name of God. One of the commandments specifically says not to take God's name in vain, yet we interpret that in so many ways.

In our house, you don't say, "Oh, God!" unless you are praying or (as in this case), using the phrase to educate someone on what not to say and when. Yet how many people just use it as an expression of surprise? Many a time, I've had to correct one of the kids' friends because they shout it out when someone says something funny or their video game character gets into trouble. And they will actually argue with me that there's nothing wrong with using it that way, even though some of them are from good Christian families. Obviously, they've learned a different application of respect.

I also know it's a cultural thing, too. My dad, who wasn't an especially religious man when younger, had to train my mom, a devout Catholic and a Puerto Rican, out of the habit.

But what about when it is being used in a devoted way, like in the song "Yahweh, I Know You are Near?" Well, first of all, the Tetragrammaton was meant to be unpronounceable, and so any attempt to make it pronounceable is most likely going to be wrong. How would you like it if your spouse were to get your name wrong while declaring his love?

So why would God give us a name for Him that no one can pronounce? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. My own reasoning is that there are some things humans are not ready to know. For example, we don't really, with detail, know what heaven is like. Our human bodies don't have the senses to process what the soul will experience. So, too, with God's name: a name with such beauty and majesty that we are to know it with our souls and not our human bodies. Until then, God has given us many other wonderful names: God, Lord, Abba, Father, and of course, Jesus Christ.

Having grown up singing "You are Near," it's going to take me a while to replace the word, but I'll keep at it. God deserves my respect.


Gray Rinehart said...

I'm going to have to think about this a little bit, but I'll offer a couple of thoughts for now.

On one hand, I'm not sure God much cares how we pronounce YHWH, depending on whether we do it reverently. If the idea is that we can't say with reverence something we can't be sure we're pronouncing correctly, then I'm not sure I follow that.

On another hand, focusing so much on the tetragrammaton seems to be a very Old Testament way of thinking. The "name that is above every name" is not YHWH, but Jesus, right? Yet we don't concern ourselves with whether we say Jesus, or Jesu (as in "Joy of Man's Desiring") or Yeshua, and we don't worry that using a Greek version of an Aramaic variant of a Hebrew name may rob the Lord of any of his power or majesty.

Those are my preliminary thoughts on the subject. The emphasis on names and the power of names is a very mystical concept, and I don't pretend to understand it all.

Anonymous said...

So why would God give us a name for Him that no one can pronounce?

To mess with our minds, of course.

A "mystery of ambiguity", sort of a Divine Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, so we don't get all smug about having EVERYTHING All Figured Out.

Karina Fabian said...

I don't care how lovingly you say my name, if you mispronounce it, you say you don't really care.

Jesus came to fulfill the law, not overrule it, so I think we should still respect God's name--and it seems the Church does, too. Good point, though about how we pronounce Jesus' name. He,too, is God as well as man. However, Jesus is his human name (along with Emmanuel), and there was never any injunction against saying it.