Invitation to Relationship
Once a college freshman was taking a lengthy, important final exam in a huge auditorium of an equally huge university. The exam went on for three painful hours. Eventually, this student looked up from his paper and noticed that he was the only one left taking the test. The class was a big class, over a hundred students. The professor smiled and told him his time was up. But the student kept working, past the allotted time, five, ten, fifteen minutes. When he got up and slowly walked to the front of the room, the professor was not pleased he had to stay longer than necessary.
“I believe, young man, that this exam was over fifteen minutes ago. I cannot accept your paper. I must inform you that you have effectively failed this exam, and most likely the course as well.”
The young man just stood there, totally stunned. He had never failed an exam before, much less a whole course. “But you have to take my exam.”
“I beg your pardon? I don’t believe I have to do anything. Have you any idea who I am?,” he said with an air of self-importance.
“Yes, sir.” Then in a stroke of genius, he asked, “But do you know who I am?”
“No, I do not,” the professor replied. “And I really couldn’t care less.”
At that the student shoved his paper into the pile that sat on the teacher’s desk. “Then that’s just too bad,” he said and walked away.
I still have trouble with names. As a teacher it sometimes took me two or three months to match all my students’ names with their rightful owners. And that’s while seeing them all everyday in class, following a seating chart, repeatedly asking them to tell me who they are, and committing last year’s yearbook to memory.
It is much worse in a parish. I don’t see everyone everyday. And a lot of you don’t sit in the same places or even come to the same mass each weekend. There is no seating chart, no attendance record, no yearbook, and only a third of you got your picture taken for the parish directory. There are no tests or homework to grade, and no report cards to hand out, and no parent-teacher conferences to attend. Believe me, I am happier about that than you can ever hope to be.
The truth is, knowing a person’s name is sometimes all it takes to assure them you care. Our names are perhaps our only possession that other people use more than we do. So it is necessary that they take possession (in a manner of speaking) of our names. But they cannot possess what they have not received. And sometimes, they need to receive it more than once. I know I do.
We all possess God’s name. But as with all names, God’s name carries with it quite a history. I once had a friend in high school named Napoleon. Every time I saw him I couldn’t help but see a short heavy-set man in a funny hat with his hand stuck in his shirt. Our names define us more often than we get to define ourselves, unless you’re Jordan or Brangelina or Madonna or Gaga or Tupac or Neil deGrasse Tyson.
But what about God’s name? In the gospel, God’s name is revealed by an angel to a young girl in the town of Nazareth. “His name shall be Emmanuel, God-with-us.” Some might think the name refers only to the Christ child born in time, and not also to the mighty and eternal God. But if we examine what God has done through the ages, we might think differently.
In the first reading from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the people of Israel, that rag-tag band of nomads who just recently gained their freedom from slavery and were preparing to enter the land promised to their ancestors. In times of great excitement and joy (as Israel was entering the promised land), it is easy to forget those persons and experiences that made such good fortunes possible. So Moses attempts to call their minds back to the One who loved them first, the One whose mighty hand had brought about their freedom, the One whose glory shone before them on the mountain. “Did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, all of which the Lord, your God, did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?”
Then in today’s gospel, Jesus instructs his closest friends to make disciples of all the nations, to baptize and to teach. I discovered something interesting after looking at each of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ last days. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus said his peace and went up to heaven. In Mark, Jesus was not seen or heard from again after the resurrection. In John, Jesus spoke extensively about returning to the Father and sending the Holy Spirit. But in Matthew which we read today, Jesus never quite left. In fact, he even tells us, “I am with you always, until the end of the age.” He is after all Emmanuel, God-with-us.
The names we have used for God through the ages have drawn various reactions from people who might feel alienated or excluded because of what the name may have implied. In revealing to us that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Jesus opens our minds to an entirely new reality, something never before encountered in the human experience of God. Some individuals uncomfortable with these labels have replaced the name of God with job descriptions instead, calling upon God as creator, redeemer and sanctifier. I think this makes for a very impersonal approach in response to One who through the ages has made every effort to connect with human history on a very personal level. In revealing God-self as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God calls us into relationship with himself, God calls us into engagement – with one another, with God, and with the world. After all, it is in just these ways that God – as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is engaged. (Judith M. Buck-Glenn)
So what’s in a name? A whole lot more than we might imagine sometimes. In his letter to the Romans, Paul points out something that Jesus had already spoken of before. “You did not receive a spirit of slavery leading you back into fear, but a spirit of adoption through which we cry out, ‘Abba!’” “Abba” not simply “Father,” but “Daddy” or “Papa.” God desires a relationship but when we fail to acknowledge such invitations to a personal connection, we miss the point entirely about the three Divine Persons in God. We know relationships do not come fully assembled in a box with batteries included. Rather, our relationships are about investing our time and energy in building bonds of mutual respect, affection, friendship, understanding, care and forgiveness. Jesus shows us the way. He is Emmanuel, God-with-us, God in our midst. And each of us is called to make God present in the world and among God’s people, as Jesus did. So You and I, too, are Emmanuel. And if we take our role seriously, through our every word and action, we make God known to all the world.