Back To Life – What’s In A Name?

by Melissa Taft
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by John van de Laar

What’s In A Name?

An excerpt from Back To Life- Experience Your Own Resurrectiona Liturgical Guide for Easter from

I lived in eleven different homes, in three different continents in the first seven years of my life. My father’s work meant that my family moved often. For my tiny, sensitive, introverted soul, this was a lot to cope with. But what made it possible for me was my security pillow with its dog picture on the front and shaped to match. Everywhere I went my pillow was firmly tucked under my arm. My mother tells me that, as we moved through the various airports, she would put me on the trolley with our luggage and I would put my head on my pillow and go to sleep. I don’t remember when I stopped clinging to my dog pillow, but I do remember the pillow itself clearly and very fondly. 

It was appropriate and very helpful for me to carry my dog pillow around with me as a small child traveling the world. But if I had tried to take it with me to my first day of school that would have been less appropriate. If I had kept it beside me through high school, or laid it on my desk as I attended university lectures, or had it on my lap in my first job interview, that would have been dysfunctional. What was normal for me as a child is abnormal for me now as an adult. I still have important objects that hold meaning for me. And some of them may even seem juvenile or strange to others. But I engage with them as an adult in an adult way, not as an attempt to cling to my childhood.

What makes this Easter different from the last two years is that the first signs of an end to the pandemic are beginning to appear. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we can begin to imagine a life that is no longer restricted by COVID protocols. And that can make the temptation to cling to what we’ve known seductive. When we think of a return to normal, it is tempting to look back. We naturally long to return to what we’ve known, even if it is now beyond our reach. But we can’t get back to life by going back. The life, the resurrection we seek is ahead of us, in the new world that is, as yet, unknown. 

In the resurrection narrative of John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene tried to cling to the Risen Jesus who had just made himself known. But he discouraged her and helped her to see that he, her relationship with him, and their world, were all changed. She could not cling to what she knew. That reality was gone. The life she now sought was not behind her but ahead.

Jesus had already prepared her to cope with the new reality. Although at first she mistook him for the gardener, he opened her eyes by speaking her name. This was not just saying a label. It was an act of recognising her for who she was, of celebrating her and all that her name meant and embodied. Her relationship with Jesus had always been based on his capacity to make her feel truly seen—perhaps as no one else ever had. 

I often wonder how Jesus spoke her name. Did he simply say it as an affirmation of her presence? Or did he voice it with a smile as a gentle question, “Seriously, Mary? You don’t recognise me the way I recognise you?” Perhaps he looked her in the eye and spoke it as a reminder of her strength and uniqueness. Whatever the case, when he named her he empowered her to rise up, embrace her new reality, and share her experience with the other disciples. He led her back to life not by clinging to the past, but by stepping confidently and hopefully into the unknown future. 

We cannot know fullness of life, we cannot be resurrected into our most abundant, meaningful life unless we know what it is to be fully seen, truly named, and completely loved. And that’s why the Scriptures are so consistent in speaking about the importance of our names. The psalmist, without specifically mentioning names, celebrates being fully and lovingly known by God in every way (Ps.139). When the people of Israel cry that God has forgotten them, Isaiah brings a divine word that says, “See, I have written (some other versions say engraved or inscribed) your name on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:15). In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, it is the poor beggar who is named in contrast to the wealthy man who ignores him (Luke 16:19-31). When Jesus calls Simon he gives him a new name to express both the giftedness and strength that Jesus sees in him and his new calling among the disciples (John 3:42). Nathaniel’s skepticism is overcome when Jesus describes seeing him under the fig tree before Philip called him and affirms him as a “genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity” (John 3:47). And here, Jesus names Mary and sends her as the first apostle to share the news of resurrection.

If we long to get back to life again, to experience our own resurrection, we can begin by remembering that we are named, seen, and loved by God—just as we are, regardless of what life and the world have taken from us or how others have mis-seen us. All we need to do is learn to believe it and live into it—which is, I confess, easier said than done. And that’s why we need each other. As we intentionally and lovingly see and name one another, so we remind each other of God’s love and God’s seeing of us all. And as our souls learn to trust that we are truly and fully named, seen, and loved, so we can find the courage and strength to move forward into the life, the resurrection, that awaits us beyond the pandemic—or any other tragedy or trauma that we may have had to deal with.

We don’t know what the post-pandemic world will look like. But we do know that we cannot avoid it. We cannot go ‘back to Egypt’. We cannot return to normal in the sense of having again the life we once knew. Like Mary, we have to let go of our temptation to cling to the past, the familiar, the safe, and we have to step into the new reality that awaits us—whatever it may be.

And the thing that empowers us is to know that we are known; to experience, daily, that we are fully and truly seen, that we are enthusiastically celebrated, and that we are unconditionally loved. This is what Christ gives us as he speaks our names and engraves them on the palms of his hands. And this is what he asks us to give to one another as we embody for each other, the seeing, knowing, and loving of Christ. 

Who needs you to name them today? Who needs to know that you see them? Who needs to feel God’s love expressed through you? And how will you make sure that you speak that person’s name warmly, respectfully, and with deep celebration and gratitude for who they are?

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from our author John van de Laar’s new resource Back to Life – just in time for right now, the season of Easter. You can find it through our Lent/Easter resource page, from John’s website, and directly here.

Featured photo is from Pixabay

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