"But," said Moses to God, "when I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?"
God replied, "I am who am." Then he added, "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you." (Exodus 3:13-14)
During his earthly ministry, Jesus sometimes spoke of God's name: for example, we can find this in the Lord's Prayer ("hallowed be thy name") and in his prayer in the upper room ("I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world"). What does this mean?
In the Bible, "a name expresses a person's essence and identity and the meaning of this person's life" (CCC 203). God often changes people's names in the Bible -- Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul. God's deeply mysterious name -- I AM -- is revealed to Moses by God as he speaks from the burning bush, but his nature and essence are further revealed by Jesus.
In revealing his mysterious name, YHWH ("I AM HE WHO IS", "I AM WHO AM" or "I AM WHO I AM"), God says who he is and by what name he is to be called. This divine name is mysterious just as God is mystery. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name, and hence it better expresses God as what he is - infinitely above everything that we can understand or say: he is the "hidden God", his name is ineffable, and he is the God who makes himself close to men. (CCC 206)God's name is written in Hebrew as YHWH (written Hebrew contains no vowels). We do not know exactly how it would have been pronounced; vowels have been added to render Yahweh, which may be approximately correct. A few years ago, the Vatican issued a directive that the name Yahweh must not be "sung or pronounced" during Catholic Masses. As far as I know, this didn't cause too much controversy among Catholics themselves (I can only think of two hymns, ones based on Psalm 139 and another on Psalm 25 that contained the name), but some people of other faith traditions -- particularly Jehovah's Witnesses -- denounced the directive, claiming that it was trying to separate us from God.
At the time the directive was announced, I was under the impression that it was primarily out of respect and consideration for our Jewish brothers and sisters, who hold that God's name is so sacred that it must never be pronounced or written, lest it be profaned. This was part of the motivation, and not an unimportant part, but the primary reason for the directive was to simply continue the reverence that Christians have always had for God's personal name, a reverence which was a natural continuation of our Judaic roots.
Even before the time of Jesus, Jews had already adopted the custom of always substituting Adonai, Hebrew for Lord, in place of YHWH; this was translated as Kyrios in Greek texts and Dominus in St. Jerome's Vulgate. In modern English versions, it is translated as LORD in all capitals. The Jews of Jesus' time always used Lord to refer to God.
As the Catechism notes, "Out of respect for the holiness of God, the people of Israel do not pronounce his name. In the reading of Sacred Scripture, the revealed name (YHWH) is replaced by the divine title "LORD" (in Hebrew Adonai, in Greek Kyrios). It is under this title that the divinity of Jesus will be acclaimed: 'Jesus is LORD.'" (CCC 209).
Avoiding the use of Yahweh is not an attempt to separate us from God; it is a gesture of reverence and respect. Just as the Holy of Holies -- the dwelling place of God on earth -- was veiled in the Temple in Jerusalem, the name of God is "hidden" in our liturgy because it is sacred and holy.
The Vatican's directive, a gentle response to the practice of occasionally using Yahweh in hymns written after Vatican II, has helped me to better understand the the infinite and ineffable nature of God. It has not taken anything away, but has restored the reverence we owe to God in our liturgy.
The beautiful truth is, we can invoke God's name, and we speak it often:
But the one name that contains everything is the one that the Son of God received in his incarnation: JESUS. The divine name may not be spoken by human lips, but by assuming our humanity The Word of God hands it over to us and we can invoke it: "Jesus," "YHWH saves." The name "Jesus" contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray "Jesus" is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies. Jesus is the Risen One, and whoever invokes the name of Jesus is welcoming the Son of God who loved him and who gave himself up for him. (CCC 2666)As Marcel of Aggie Catholics notes, "So, when we pray 'in the name of Jesus' we can only do so because Christ first united us to Himself." Having both fully human and fully divine natures, Jesus allows us to invoke the name of God directly. What a gift:
The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always. When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and "brings forth fruit with patience." (CCC 2668)
*****I should note that I was partially inspired to write this post based on the few encounters I have had with a Jehovah's Witness woman in our town. I didn't know much about Jehovah's Witnesses or their beliefs before she first visited, but in reading the Watchtower publications she's left here and doing some of my own research, I've become much better acquainted with their religion. It's certainly not a faith that is deserving of her enthusiasm or time, and I'm very sad that she has been deceived by the Watchtower organization.
Jehovah's Witnesses are (as their name implies) very intent on using Jehovah as the divine name; in their New World Translation of the Bible, Jehovah is consistently used throughout the Old Testament, and even throughout the New Testament, despite the fact that none of the original texts of the Gospels or Epistles use it. Most Biblical scholars agree that, linguistically, Jehovah is a (probably incorrect) translation of YHWH, rendered by combining the Latin letters JHVH with the approximate vowel sounds of the Hebrew Adonai. This version of the divine name is found in several Bible translations from centuries past (beginning in 1530), but most translations substitute "LORD" nowadays.
Whether it's a mistranslation or not isn't much of an issue. The problem lies in the Witnesses' insistence that "true Christians" invoke the divine name, and do not make substitutions such as "Lord." Their most recent publication even asserted that Jesus would have often used "God's personal name" during his ministry, despite zero evidence supporting that claim (and a preponderance of evidence to the contrary). As would naturally follow, those who avoid the divine name in worship (like Catholics) are considered non-Christian. (Really, that's a rather mild interpretation; they actually consider us wicked and the "Whore of Babylon.")
Despite claiming to the be only "true Christians," Witnesses deny the Resurrection, the divinity of Christ, and the Trinity. Their founding was primarily concerned with end-times prophecies: several of their "end of the world" dates have already passed, but they continue to believe that Armageddon is right around the corner. They believe that only 144,000 people will make it into Heaven, a number which has already been filled, and that these were the only people with whom God entered his everlasting covenant. When Armageddon comes, all of the wicked (everybody who isn't a Witness) will be annihilated. There will then be a thousand-year period of peace, during which the remaining Witnesses will presumably have to clean up all the dead bodies. At the end of that thousand years, the Witnesses who have pleased Jehovah (but didn't make the 144,000 cut) will live forever on a "paradise earth"; the rest will simply be wiped out of existence.
There are many good people who are Jehovah's Witnesses. Their organization works by providing a comfortable, friendly structure for its adherents. The woman who visits me occasionally always brings a different woman with her; she refers to each as "sister." She told me that she "didn't have the Scriptures" when she was raising her children, and that the Bible has given her a great deal of comfort and joy. I have no doubt that this is true. It gives me great sorrow that her organization promotes so many bizarre teachings which have been considered heretical since the earliest days of Christianity. All of it bothers me -- the paradise earth, the 144,000 heaven cutoff -- but I am most saddened by the refusal to believe that Jesus is God.
I haven't made much headway in talking with this woman yet, because Elise objects every time (one time she grabbed the Watchtower magazine and insisted the woman take it back -- it was hard not to smile). I suspect she'll be coming back soon with the April editions of her publications. I'm praying that the Holy Spirit will guide me in knowing what to say to this sweet, kind lady, who has unfortunately fallen prey to a fundamentally anti-Christian organization that has manipulated her into devoting time to spreading its message, much of which is woefully false and dangerous.