What’s In A Name?
Last month it was April Fools, this month it’s May Day. These two Spring months both contain named days which are recognisable by most people, and yet they probably evoke very different reactions. April Fools’ Day – well, that’s just a bit of fun. May Day? If you are of ‘a certain age’, then May Day brings to mind vast military displays in Communist bloc capital cities, most notably Red Square outside the Kremlin in Moscow. Those younger individuals, who only know the post-glasnost era, a world with no Berlin wall and no seemingly imminent threat of nuclear holocaust, will wonder what the fuss is about. Indeed, the Bank Holiday at the start of May is no longer even referred to officially as the May Day holiday, the preferred term being simply the Early May Bank Holiday (the Spring Bank Holiday occurs at the end of the month).
It was at the turn of the 20th Century that an international grouping of socialist and communist parties designated May 1st ‘International Workers’ Day’, and used it as a focus of pressure to improve the rights of labourers and other workers, including reductions in length of the working day, and the call for universal peace. It remains a public holiday in communist China and North Korea, still retaining the trappings seen previously in the Eastern Bloc nations.
Traditionally, of course, May Day had nothing to do with workers’ rights. It was a Spring fertility celebration, complete with Maypole, morris dancing and all that frivolity, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and before. May Day itself has no particular religious significance, and so is not itself a holiday in the UK. When I was growing up, there was an annual dispute over what to call the May Bank Holiday, with those on the political left shouting ‘May Day’, and those to the right shouting anything but!
Times have changed, of course. The Warsaw Pact is no more, and socialism appears a spent force, at least in the matter of naming public holidays. And yet there is power in a name. For the older generations, simply saying ‘May Day’ would conjure images of tanks and missile launchers in Russia, or the struggle against uncaring capitalism. Today’s power names are more likely to be brands, social media platforms or celebrities, which will mean as little to the older generations as Comrade Kruschev means to the younger. Recent investigations into Facebook, the ongoing disputes over income tax by international giants such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks, highlight the power of a name, and the distorting influence they can have on society. It is hard to imagine a world not connected by social media such as Facebook, and yet Facebook only launched in 2004, a mere 14 years ago. It is still older than my son, however, and there are generations growing up today for whom internet connectivity is not only familiar, but an essential element of their daily existence. FOMO – fear of missing out – keeps these so-called ‘Generation Z’ constantly connected, sharing carefully edited versions of their lives with the world, or at least that part of it which cares to look.
For those of us who inhabit the same world, yet come from a different generation, it is easy to dismiss such things, imagining the ‘old ways’ to be so much simpler to understand, and therefore better. Yet I grew up in a world which feared the nuclear winter, and while the bombs are still around, my son does not have that fear ever-present in his life, long may it stay so. For the young, the three day week, the miners’ strike, the Falklands War (or was it a ‘campaign’, such were the debates of the ‘80s), even Militant Tendency and Derek Hatton are simply pages from a history text book. Or, more likely, a web page. My son is largely ignorant of Blackadder and only knows of The Onedin Line through Classic fm. Many, and this is the hardest to bear, think Christopher Eccleston was the first Dr Who.
And yet there remain names and images which transcend the years, and impact on multiple generations.
As the immortal Bard said, in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Act 2 scene 2,
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;
It is the nature of the thing which gives its true value, rather than its name. For Juliet, it is the ongoing feud between Montague and Capulet which gave her cause to muse. It is the attitude of the families which is the problem, not the name itself, as she, a Capulet, loved Romeo, a Montague, despite their given surnames. Such love would be impossible if it were the name which determined the character of the named.
Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Armstrong (Neil, not Lance), Hawking, Thatcher and many others, are names we associate with characteristics – generally positive in this list, but if we add in Hitler, Shipman, Brady and Hindley a different understanding emerges. And I won’t start on Donald Trump…
Yes, a name can bring to mind so much more than a simple way of remembering the identity of a thing or person. Name-dropping has long been a way of borrowing the influence of another for one’s own advantage.
Yet there is a name more famous and powerful than any other. A name to which is ascribed the ability to judge and save. A name above all names. And that name is Jesus. Of course, the name itself, on its own, means very little. There are many thousands of people called Jesus living in the world today, and there were certainly a lot in the first century – Barabbas, the murderer freed in place of Christ, was called Jesus according the oldest versions of Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, Jesus itself is a Greek version of the Aramaic name Yeshua, itself a translation of the Hebrew for Joshua.
St Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippian Church,
6Who, though in God’s form, did not regard his equality with God as something he ought to exploit.7Instead, he emptied himself, and received the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of humans. And then, having human appearance,8he humbled himself, and became obedient even to death, yes, even the death of the cross.9And so God has greatly exalted him, and to him in his favour has given
the name which is over all names:10That now at the name of Jesus every knee within heaven shall bow – on earth, too, and under the earth;11And every tongue shall confess
that Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, to the glory of God, the father. (Philippians 2:6-11, New Testament for Everyone)
That famous hymn, ‘At the name of Jesus’ is based on this verse, and yet it is not simply the word ‘Jesus’ which has the authority, but who Jesus is. St Paul lists all his qualities and attributes before coming to that line, telling us that it is the fact that Jesus is equal with God and has received all authority from God which means that ‘every knee shall bow’ at the sound of his name. It is the recognition that this Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, he Saviour of humanity – not because he is a fancy brand, not because he is liked by millions on Facebook, but because he is God and has authority. He has the power to save us, and was prepared to go to the humiliating death on a cross to show us the way to receive that salvation.
So as we move out of Easter season, and through Pentecost then on into the long weeks of Ordinary Time, never lose sight of what’s really in a name.