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What is God's Name?
Language in a New Lectionary

by Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., Archbishop of Chicago

On the first Sunday of Advent in 1998, the Church began a new liturgical year. Many parishes began using a revised version of the New American Bible Lectionary, which will become normative for liturgical use in this country. Advent prepares us for the celebration of Christmas, the first of the mysteries of Jesus' life that we contemplate and celebrate throughout the Church's Year of Grace. Jesus' annunciation and birth, however, are events in a long process of God's self-revelation in human history. One key to understanding this revelation is to look at it as a process in the growth of intimacy between God and the human family, as God gradually taught us his name.

The Name of God

When God began to reveal himself in history, Abraham, who was a polytheist, dared not to ask God's name. To give someone your name is to open your existence to him or her. Centuries later, Moses did ask for God's name in the presence of a burning bush; and God answered by calling himself "I am who am." That enigmatic name was so awe-inspiring to the chosen people that they replaced it in writing with words like "Lord." The people of Israel struggled to remain faithful to God's revelation while surrounded by fertility gods and goddesses, by mythological figures and deifications of political rulers, by idolatries of many sorts.

CardinalMore centuries later, God revealed himself definitively in history by sending his eternal Son who became incarnate of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:32-35). Jesus, whose name means Savior and who most often called himself "Son of Man," began gradually to increase our intimacy with God. He told stories to show how God acts. He also spoke of the Holy Spirit and called God his Father.

In the centuries since God's self-revelation in Jesus, the Church has preserved the stories Jesus told, rejoiced in his saving death and resurrection, sacramentally celebrated his life in us, awaited his return in glory, and contemplated who God is. God is pure spirit. As God, he is neither male nor female because he has no body. He is, however, from all eternity the Father of his only begotten Son, who has become in history Our Lord Jesus Christ. What a spiritual and eternal engendering is and how it contrasts with a biological and temporal engendering is part of the mystery of the Godhead; but the eternal engendering is real and so is the name: Father. Because we are "in Christ," and only to the extent we are "in Christ," his Father really and not just metaphorically becomes our Father.

The Core of Revelation

Years ago in grade school catechism class, the Sister teaching us explained very succinctly that God is a Father who is not a male. We do not, therefore, look at males and extrapolate to a divine biological progenitor. We look at Jesus, who shows us his Father, who becomes intimately ours in the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 14:8-11). The mystery of the Blessed Trinity can never be totally explained. It can be partially grasped, however, by living God's life in us and coming to know the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. This is the core of Christian revelation.

Heterodox Theorizing

Forgetting that God has revealed himself as three divine Persons sharing one Being leads through the centuries to bizarre theories about God. One that still floats around today and occasionally appears even in theological circles conceives God as a kind of unknowable Force which becomes pre-eminently visible in a human person named Jesus, who is a prophet proclaiming values relating us to one another in a spirit which unites us all to God. Religion's job, therefore, is to tell us we really are gods, that "the Force is with us," as George Lucas puts it popularly in the Star Wars movies. In this vision of things, Jesus may be a prophet; but he's not a savior, since we're all gods to begin with. And since all human language about this Force is merely metaphor, choose the names for God that are meaningful to you.

Or, acknowledging the Trinity but unhappy with a hierarchy of First, Second, and Third Persons, some theologians have taken to conceiving the Trinity as a society of equals with unknown inner relationships.

The preferred names for God, then, are said to be non-relational or even merely functional. Behind this theory lies the conviction that the Church, icon of the Trinity, must be only a discipleship of equals functionally related by various ministries. The Quakers, it seems, are right; and the apostles, captives of their hierarchical culture, wrong. Proper Trinitarian language helps protect us from this sort of heterodox theorizing about God or his people.

Language about God Matters

While these reflections might seem somewhat esoteric, buckets of blood have been spilled over the ages on language about God, because there is no subject more important. Neither God nor language about him is to be played with lightly. God is not a mirror into which we peer to see ourselves represented nor an idea we can take apart and put together with impunity. The introduction of a revised translation of Holy Scripture in the Lectionary used at Mass is therefore an important moment in the life of the Church. It teaches us how to speak to and about God.

Book and Candle The new Lectionary is based on the revised version of the New American Bible, which is the version already used in almost all parishes in the United States. Its rhythms and cadences will therefore be somewhat familiar, although the revision has been made not only in the light of new manuscript study but also with an ear for American speech at the end of the century.

 

Inclusive Language

Since language about ourselves, as well as about God, is something of a minefield these days, not everyone will appreciate all its usages. The translation tries to accommodate the sensitivities expressed in what has come to be called "inclusive language," where these do not lead to betrayal of the inspired text itself. The Lectionary uses grammatically masculine pronouns for God, because the inspired authors used them and because avoiding the use of personal pronouns risks reducing God to an impersonal Force. To speak of ourselves, however, the usage is inclusive where the text means to include everyone rather than to speak to or about only men or only women.

One of the weaknesses of the inclusivist idiom is that it is nominalist and individualistic. Its universe contains only individuals and groups of individuals, whereas Christian discourse predicates natures as such (e.g., "He became man"). Inclusive language sometimes resembles an artificial code more than a natural language, because it presupposes that words have only one determined meaning. (For example, if you use a masculine pronoun, you must be talking about a biological male, although this presupposition seems to disappear when speaking about wisdom as feminine.) Despite the inadequacies of inclusive language as language, some recognition of inclusivist concerns is pastorally wise and, to an extent still to be determined, linguistically apt.

What is the Lectionary?

In five years, we will be better able to sort out what is genuine development in current linguistic usage and what is only faddish. At that time, the Lectionary will be revisited. Meanwhile, let us use the new Lectionary well. It is not a manifesto but the Word of God translated into our words in order to unite us in prayer and liturgical proclamation to God himself.

(This commentary is reprinted from The New World, December 6,1998, p. 6. Cardinal George's column appears regularly in this newspaper. For subscription information, call (312) 243-1300 or Click Here.)


References:

• See also the 1990 statement of the U.S. bishops, Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations.

• For a summary of the bishops' discussion of the Lectionary in June, 1997.

• For a commentary by Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania. Bishop Trautman is a former chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy.

 

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