Hallowed Be Thy Name

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When it comes to receiving meaningful names, some of us are winners.  Others are losers. 

Then there’s the family with both a Winner and a Loser.

In 1958 Robert Lane and his wife, who lived in public housing in Harlem, New York City, became parents of their sixth child.  Dad, in a joyful mood, decided to name his little boy Winner.  Three years later the Lanes became parents again.  This time, at the urging of their oldest daughter, they named their little boy Loser, even though they were entirely happy that he had come into the world.    

For sociologists who study the long-term impact of both hopeful and “downer” names, this was a dream scenario.  How would these brothers turn out?

So far, Winner has been the loser.  His criminal record began at age 19 when he was arrested for aggravated assault.  Since then he has been arrested at least 30 more times – for breaking and entering, domestic abuse, grand theft auto, and a string of other offenses.  Winner has spent much of his adult life behind bars. 

Loser, meanwhile, has been living large.  He received a scholarship to attend a Connecticut prep school.  He graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, where he excelled at varsity football.  In 1984 he became a member of the New York City Police Department.  Along the way, he has never concealed his name or tried to change it.  His cop friends call him Lou. 

Americans may be comparatively casual about names. and the jury is still out on their long-term effects on our lives.  But that’s not the case on the pages of Scripture. 

Names are carefully chosen to express destiny (Abraham is the “father of nations”), character (Peter is “the rock”), theology (Elijah means “God is the Lord”), and memorable experiences (Jabez means “Pain,” which describes his mom’s struggle 3,000 years before the invention of the epidural). 

Then there’s God’s name, which figures prominently at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer:  “Our Father, who is always near us, hallowed be Thy name.”   Or as countless Sunday School children have prayed over the years, including one confident little boy at our church, “Howard be thy name.” 

Since 1611, when scholars crafted the King James Version of the Bible, “hallowed” has become an archaic word.  To “hallow” means to sanctify something – to treat it as holy and deserving of profound respect. 

All Saints Day (November 1) honors the hallowed men and women of Christian history – those who, according to Catholic and Anglican traditions, have become saints.  October 31 is therefore All Hallows Eve.  According to Celtic tradition, “Hallow-e’en” is a “thin place” on the calendar – an annual intersection of the visible and invisible worlds.  Since less-than-saintly spirits were thought capable of generating fear and chaos on Halloween, villagers might wear masks to scare those demons back to hell. 

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln described the area around that Pennsylvania hamlet as “this hallowed ground.”  The three-day Civil War battle in July 1863 had forever transformed the significance of the those otherwise ordinary hills, woods, and fields.   

That’s the thrust of Jesus’ prayer:  “May your name, Father, take on an ever-deepening significance and meaning every time we hear it.”

In Bible times, names were associated with identity, character, and reputation.  Some of that sense endures today.  When Clarence Thomas sat before the U.S. Senate in the hearings that ultimately confirmed him as a Supreme Court Justice, he was asked why he was putting up with what was then unprecedented public scrutiny.  He answered, “I’m here to get my name back.”  Thomas’ name was still the same on his driver’s license.  But his reputation had been savaged.

Names carry baggage.  They become heavy with associations. 

Consider two five-letter names that will appear in every national newscast today: Trump and Biden.  Very few of us are neutral about those names.  When you hear them, you may feel a surge of fear.  Or pride.  Or hope.  Or revulsion.  Political operatives have been working overtime trying to associate their candidate’s five-letter name with success and glory, while associating their opponent’s five-letter name with corruption and despair.

So what’s at stake in the Lord’s Prayer?  Jesus is teaching us to pray, “Father, may your name be freighted with all the honor and respect you so richly deserve.  May your public reputation skyrocket.”

We might be tempted to think, “That’s very nice.  I hope that happens.”  And then move seamlessly on to the rest of the prayer. 

But we’re not off the hook.  We ourselves are being called to be the answer to the prayer that Jesus is teaching us to pray. 

The suffix “-ian” generally means “the people of” or “those who represent.”  A Brazilian represents the biggest country in South America.  Many of us assume, without giving it a great deal of thought, that Brazilians are joyful people who love soccer and steakhouses strongly endorsed by the Atkins Diet.  How about Sicilians?  Those who represent Sicily like deep-dish Sicilian pizza and – weren’t they connected somehow to the Mafia?  People tend to associate Brazil and Sicily and lots of other places with their impressions (often superficial) of the people who grew up there.  

Then there are Christians – the people of Christ. 

Because of those who bear his name, what do people associate with Christ?  Is it kindness, generosity, love, and grace?  Or quarreling, bigotry, hypocrisy, and judgmentalism? 

All of the above, perhaps?

Christians represent the five-letter name of Jesus.  Incredibly, he has allowed his reputation to remain in our hands. 

The next time we pray, “hallowed be thy name,” we can know that we are really saying, “Father, give me such grace that when people look at me, they don’t just see my tired, poor life.  They see the work that your Son continues to do in my heart.”

Which will lead them to say, whenever they think about You:  Wow.