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Names

Matthew i. 21. And thou shall call his name Jesus.

Did it ever seem to you a curious thing that the Catechism begins by asking the child its name? 'What is your name?' 'Who gave you this name?' I think that if you were not all of you accustomed to the Church Catechism from your childhood, that would seem a strange way of beginning to teach a child about religion.

But the more I consider, the more sure I am that it is the right way to begin teaching a child what the Catechism wishes to teach.

Do not fancy that it begins by asking the child's name just because it must begin somehow, and then go on to religion afterwards. Do not fancy that it merely supposes that the clergyman does not know the child's name, and must ask it; for this Catechism is intended to be taught by parents to their children, and masters to their apprentices and servants; by people, therefore, who know the child's name perfectly well already, and yet they are to begin by asking the child his name.

Now, why is this? What has a child's name to do with his Faith and duty as a Christian?

You may answer, Because his Christian name is given him when he is baptized.

But why is his Christian name given him when he is baptized? Why then rather than at any other time?

Because it is the old custom of the Church. No doubt it is: and a most wise and blessed custom it is; and one which shows us how much more about God and man the churchmen in old times knew, than most of our religious teachers now-a-days. But how did that old custom arise? What put into the minds of church people, for the last sixteen hundred years at least, that being baptized and being named had anything to do with each other? Men had names of their own long before the Lord Jesus came, long before His Baptism was heard of on earth;--the heathens of old had their names--the heathens have names still;--why, then, did church people feel it right to mix a new thing like baptism with a world-old thing like giving a name?

My friends, I feel and say honestly, that there is more in this matter than I understand; and what little I do understand, I could not explain fully in one sermon, or in many either. But let this be enough for to-day. God grant that I may be able to make you understand me.

Any one's having a name--a name of his own, a Christian name, as we rightly call it--signifies that he is a person; that is, that he has a character of his own, and a responsibility, and a calling and duty of his own, given him by God; in one word, that he has an immortal soul in him, for which he, and he alone, must answer, and receive the rewards of the deeds which it does in the body, whether they be good or evil. But names are not given at random, without cause or meaning. When Adam named all the beasts, we read that whatsoever he called any beast, that was the name of it. The names which he gave described each beast, were taken from something in its appearance, or its ways and habits, and so each was its right name, the name which expressed its nature. And so now, when learned men discover animals or plants in foreign countries, they do not give them names at random, but take care to invent names for them which may describe their natures, and make people understand what they are like, as Adam did for the beasts of old. And much more, in old times, had the names of men each of them a meaning. If it was reasonable to give names full of meaning to each kind of dumb animal, which are mere things, and not persons at all, how much more to each man separately, for each man is a person of himself; each man has a character different from all others, a calling different from all others, and therefore he ought to have his own name separate from all others: and therefore in old times it was the custom to give each child a separate name, which had a meaning in it, was, as it were, a description of the child, or of something particular about the child.

Now, we may see this, above all, in The adorable Name of Jesus. That name, above all others, ought to show us what a name means; for it is the name of the Son of Man, the one perfect and sinless man, the pattern of all men; and therefore it must be a perfect name, and a pattern for all names; and it was given to the Lord not by man, but by God; not after He was born, but before He was conceived in the womb of the blessed Virgin. And therefore, it must show and mean not merely some outward accident about Him, something which He seemed to be, or looked like, in men's eyes: no, the Name of Jesus must mean what the Lord was in the sight of His Father in Heaven; what He was in the eternal purpose of God the Father; what He was, really and absolutely, in Himself; it must mean and declare the very substance of His being. And so, indeed, it does; for The adorable Name of Jesus means nothing else but God the Saviour--God who saves. This is His name, and was, and ever will be. This Name He fulfilled on earth, and proved it to be His character, His exact description, His very Name, in short, which made Him different from all other beings in heaven or earth, create or uncreate; and therefore, He bears His name to all eternity, for a mark of what He has been, and is, and will be for ever--God the Saviour; and this is the perfect name, the pattern of all other names of men.

Now though the Christian names which we give our children here in England, have no especial meaning to them, and have nothing to do with what we expect or wish the children to be when they grow up, yet the names of people in most other countries in the world have. The Jewish names which we find in the Bible have almost all of them a meaning. So Simeon, I believe, means 'Obedient'; Jehoshaphat means, 'The Lord will judge'; Daniel, 'God is my judge'; Isaiah means, 'The Salvation of the Lord'; Isaac means, 'She laughs,' as a memorial of Sarah's laughing, when she heard that she was to have a child; Ishmael means, 'The Lord hears,' in remembrance of God's hearing Hagar's cry in the wilderness, when Ishmael was dying of thirst.

Especially those names of which we read that God commanded them to be given, have meanings, and to tell the persons who bore those names what God expected of them, or would do for them. So Abraham means, 'The father of many nations.' So the children of both Isaiah and Hosea had names given them by God, each of them meaning something which God was going to do to the nation of the Jews. And so John means, 'Given by the Lord,' which name was given to John the Baptist by the Angel, before his strange birth, in his mother's old age.

But we must remember that the heathens also gave names to their children, though they did not know that their children owed any duty to God, or belonged to God, and therefore we cannot call their names Christian names. Yes, the heathens did give their children names; some of them give their children names still. And there is to me something most sad and painful in those heathen names, and yet most full of meaning. A solemn lesson to us, to show us what the fall means; what man becomes, when he gives way to his fallen nature, and is parted from Christ, the Head of man.

First, these heathens had a dim remembrance that man was made in the likeness of God, and lived by Faith in God, and therefore that men's names were to express that, as indeed many of their old names do. But, alas! the likeness of God in fallen man is like a tree without roots, or rather a tree without soil to grow in. God's likeness in man can only flourish as long as he is joined to Christ, the perfect likeness of God, the true life and the true light of men, the foundation which is already laid, and the soil in which man was meant to grow and flourish for ever, and as long as he is fed by the Spirit of God, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds--never forget that, or you will lose the understanding both of who God is and what man is--proceeds not only from God the Father, but also from God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore, in the heathen, God's likeness withered and decayed, as a tree withers and decays when torn up from the soil. And first, they began to call themselves after the names of false gods, which they had invented out of their own carnal fancies. Then they called themselves after the names of their dumb animal's. So, Pharaoh means, 'The Sun-God'; the Ammonites mean, 'The people who worshipped the ram as a god'; Potiphar means, 'A fat bull,' which the Egyptians used to worship; and I could tell you of hundreds of heathen names more, like these, which are ridiculous enough to make one smile, if we did not keep in mind what tokens they are of sin and ignorance, and the likeness not of God, but of the beasts which perish.

Then comes another set of names, showing a lower fall still, when heathens have quite forgotten that man was originally made in God's likeness, and are not only content to live after the likeness of the beasts which perish, but pride themselves on being like beasts, and therefore name their children after dumb animals,--the girls after the gentler and fairer animals, and the boys after ravenous and cruel beasts of prey. That has been the custom among many heathen nations; perhaps among almost all of them, at some time or other. It is the custom now among the Red Indians in North America, where you will find one man in a tribe called 'The Bull,' another 'The Panther,' and another 'The Serpent,' and so on; showing that they would like to be, if they could, as strong as the bull, as cruel as the panther, as venomous as the serpent. What wonder that those Red Indians, who have so put on the likeness of the beasts, are now dying off the face of the earth like the beasts whom they admire and imitate?

And this was the way with our own heathen forefathers before the blessed Gospel was preached to them. It is frightful, in reading old histories, to find how many Englishmen, our own forefathers, were named after fierce wild beasts, and tried, alas! to be like their names--children of wrath, whose feet were swift to shed blood, under whose lips was the poison of adders, and destruction and bloodshed following in their paths, not knowing the way of peace. The wolf was the common wild beast of England then; and there are, I should say, twenty common old English names ending in wolf, besides as many more ending in bear, and eagle, and raven. Fearful sign! that men of our own flesh and blood should have gloried in being like the wolf, the cruellest, the greediest, the most mean of savage beasts! How shall we thank God enough, who sent to them the knowledge of His Son Jesus Christ, and called them to be new men in Christ Jesus, and called them to holy baptism, to receive new names, and begin new lives in the righteous likeness of God Himself?--that as by nature they had been the children of wrath, so in baptism they might become the children of grace; that as from their forefathers they had inherited a corrupt nature, original sin, and the likeness of the foul and ravenous beasts which perish, they might have power from the Spirit of God to become the sons of God, conformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ, in peace, and love, and righteousness, and all holiness.

And yet, in names there is a lower depth still among fallen and heathen men; when they lose utterly the last dim notion that God intends men to be persons, even as God the Father is a person, and God the Son a person, and God the Holy Spirit is a person, and so lose the custom of giving their children personal names at all; either giving them, after they grow up, mere nicknames, taken from some peculiarity of their bodies, or something which they have done, or some place where they happen to live; or else, like many tribes of heathen negroes, just name them after the day of the week on which they were born, as some way of knowing them apart; or, last and most shocking of all, give them no names at all, and have no names themselves, knowing each other apart as the dumb animals do, only by sight. I can conceive no deeper fall into utter brutishness than that; and yet some few of the most savage tribes, both in Africa and in the Indian islands, are said--God help them!--to live in that way, and to have no names;--blotted, indeed, out of the book of life!

But is this the right state for men? No; it is the wrong state. It is a disease into which men are fallen; a disease out of which Christ came to raise men; and out of which He does raise us in Holy Baptism. Baptism puts the child into its right state--into the right state for a human being, a human soul, a human person. And baptism declares what that right state is--a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. A member of Christ, and therefore a person, because Christ is a person. A child of God, and therefore a person, because a child's duty is to love and trust and obey his father--and only a person can do that, not an animal or a thing. An inheritor of the kingdom of heaven, and therefore bound to cherish all heavenly thoughts and feelings, all righteousness, love, and obedience, which only spirits and persons, not animals or things, can feel.

Now can you not see why baptism is the proper time for giving the child a name? Because then Christ claims the child for His own;-- because having a name shows that the child is a person who has a soul, a will, a conscience, a duty; a person who must answer himself for himself alone for what he does in the body, whether it be good or evil. And that will, and soul, and conscience were given the child by Christ, by whom all things are made, who is the Light which lights every man who comes into the world.

Thus in holy baptism God adopts the child for His own in Jesus Christ. He declares that the child is regenerate, and has a new life, a life from above, a seed of eternal personal life which he himself has not by nature. And that seed of eternal life is none other but the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, the Lord and Giver of Life, who does verily and indeed regenerate the child in holy baptism, and dwells with his soul, his person, his very self, that He may educate the child's character, and raise his affections, and subdue his will, and raise him up daily from the death of sin to the life of righteousness.

Therefore, when in the Catechism you solemnly ask the child its name, you ask it no light question. You speak as a spirit, a person, to its spirit, to its very self, which God wills should never perish, but live for ever. You single the child out from all its schoolfellows, from all the millions of human beings who have ever lived, or ever will live; and you make the child, by answering to his name, confess that he is a person, an immortal soul, who must stand alone before the judgment seat of God; a person who has a duty and a calling upon God's earth, which he must fulfil or pay the forfeit. And then you ask the child who gave him his name, and make him declare that his name was given him in baptism, wherein he was made a member of Christ and a child of God. You make the child confess that he is a person in Jesus Christ, that Christ has redeemed him, his very self, and taken him to Himself, and made him not merely God's creature, or God's slave, but God's child. You make the child confess that his duty as a person is not towards himself, to do what he likes, and follow his own carnal lusts; but toward God and toward his neighbours, who are in God's kingdom of heaven as well as he. And then you go on in the rest of the Catechism to teach him how he himself, the person to whom you are speaking, may live for ever and ever as a person, by faith in other Persons beside himself, even in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as you teach him in the Creed; by doing his duty to other persons beside himself, even to God and man, as you teach him in the Ten Commandments; and by diligent prayer to another Person beside himself, even to God his heavenly Father, to feed and strengthen him day by day with that eternal life which was given to him in baptism. Thus the whole Catechism turns upon the very first question in it-- 'What is thy name?' It explains to the child what is really meant, in the sight of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the whole Church in earth and heaven, by the child's having a name of his own, and being a person, and having that name given to him in holy baptism.

And if this is true of our children, my friends, it is equally true of us. You and I are persons, and persons in Christ; each stands alone day and night before the judgment-seat of Christ. Each must answer for himself. None can deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him. Each of us has his calling from his heavenly Father; his duty to do which none can do instead of him. Each has his own sins, his own temptations, his own sorrows, which he must bring single-handed and alone to God his Father, as it is written, 'The heart knoweth its own bitterness, and a stranger intermeddleth not with its joy.' There is a world, a flesh, and a devil, near to us, ready to drag us down, and destroy our personal and spiritual life, which God has given us in Christ; a flesh which tempts us to follow our own appetites and passions, blindly and lawlessly, like the beasts which perish; a world which tempts us to become mere things, without free-wills of our own, or consciences of our own, without personal faith and personal holiness; the puppets of the circumstances and the customs which happen to be round us; blown about like the dead leaf, and swept helplessly down the stream of time. And there is a devil, too, near us, tempting us to the deepest lie of all,--to set up ourselves apart from God, and to try, as the devil tries, to be persons in our own strength, each doing what he chooses, each being his own law, and his own master; that is, his own lawlessness, and his own tyrant: and if we listen to that devil, that spirit of lawlessness and self-will, we shall become his slaves, persons in him, doing his work, and finding torment and misery and slavery in it. Awful thought, that so many enemies should be against us; yea, that we ourselves should be our own enemies! But here baptism gives us hope, baptism gives us courage; we are in Christ; God is our Father, and He can and will give us power to have victory, and to triumph against the world, the flesh, and the devil. His Spirit is given to us in baptism--that Spirit of God who is not merely a force or an influence, but a person, a living, loving, holy Person. He is with us, to give our persons, our souls, eternal life from His life, eternal holiness from His holiness; that so, not merely some part of us, but we our very selves and souls--we the very same persons who were christened, and had a name given us in holy baptism, and have been answering to that name all our life, and were reminded, whenever we heard that name, that we had a duty of our own, a history of our own, hopes, fears, joys, sorrows of our own, which none could share with us,-- that we, I say, our own persons, our very selves, may be raised up again at the last day, free, pure, strong, filled with the life of God, which is eternal life.

And then, what blessed words are these from the Lord Jesus, which we read in the book of Revelation? 'And I will give to him that overcometh, a new name.' A new name for him that overcometh world, flesh, and devil; that shall be our portion in the world to come. A new name, perfect like the name of the Lord Jesus, which shall express and mean all that we are to do hereafter, and all that we have done well on earth. A name which shall declare to us our calling and work in God's Church triumphant, throughout all ages and worlds to come: and yet a name which no man knoweth saving he who receiveth it. Yes, if we may dare to guess at the meaning of those deep words, perhaps in that new name shall be recorded for each man all that went on, in the secret depths of the man's own heart, between himself and his God, unknown and unnoticed even by the wife of his bosom. The cup of cold water given in Christ's name; the little private acts of love, and kindness, and self-sacrifice, of which none but God knew; the secret prayers, the secret acts of contrition, the secret hungerings and thirstings after righteousness, the secret struggles and agonies of heart, which he could not, dare not, ought not to tell to any human being. All these, he shall find, will go to make up his character in the life to come, to determine what work he is to do for God in the world to come; as it is written, 'Be thou faithful over a few things, and I will make thee ruler over many things.' All these, perhaps, shall be expressed and declared in that new name, the full meaning of which none will know but the man himself, because none but he knows the secret experiences and struggles which went toward the making of it; none but he and God; for God will know all, He who is the Lord and Saviour of our souls, our persons, our very selves, and can preserve them utterly to the fulness of eternal life, because He knows them thoroughly and utterly; because He judges not according to appearance, but judges righteous judgment; because He sees us not merely as we seem to others to be, not even as we seem at times to ourselves to be;--but searches the heart, and can be touched with the feeling of its infirmities, seeing that He himself has been tempted even as we are, yet without sin; because, blessed thought! He can pierce through the very marrow of our being, and discern the thoughts and intents of our hearts, and see what we long to be, and what we ought to be; so that we can safely and hopefully commend our spirits to His hand, day by day and hour by hour, and can trust Him to cleanse us from our secret faults, and to renew and strengthen our very selves day by day with that eternal life which He gives to all who cast themselves utterly upon Him.


Charles Kingsley

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