A rose by no other name: on the importance of naming children

Three (or two?) hard problems

This past Saturday, I attended the baptism of a dear friend’s first child. She was Christened (and confirmed) as Phoebe Irene Christine Maria. During the ceremony, I was once again reminded of the importance of names. As a computer programmer, there’s an old joke I always chuckle at, “There are really only 3 hard problems in programming: 1) naming things 2) off-by-one errors.” Luckily, I still only struggle with the first two of those three.

Like any good humor, there is an underlying truth here that is being expressed. Why is it difficult to name something? Because, a name is meant to tell us something about the nature of that thing. It is meant to tell us who or what the thing is. In the case of a programmer naming a particular object, the goal is to express the purpose of that object’s existence. So, while you can name something Thingamajig, if its purpose is to convert between different time zones, TimeZoneConverter would be a far better choice; it tells us what this thing is meant to be.

Declaring what a thing is meant to be, its fundamental purpose, is difficult enough. Naming a person, and who that person is meant to be? Every parent ought to tremble before the awesome responsibility.

The Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, “Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, and called thee by thy name: thou art mine.” Consider then, dear reader, when you name your child, you will have put that name into God’s mouth. In some wonderful, mysterious sense, we can truly say that the words God will speak are due to us speaking them first; when we speak our child’s name, God has assured us, he echoes this name back—as a calling to them.

What an immense gift that, at the end of all things, our children’s names—once spoken softly to them as they gazed up into our eyes—will be echoed by the One who entrusted them to us for a short time. But unlike a natural echo, whose sound returns diminished, this supernatural echo returns to the speaker clearer and louder than it was first spoken.

This is an echo that will never diminish.

For all eternity, our children will hear this call. And we, their parents, will marvel at the fact that we placed this name—this call— on the lips of Our Lord.

The icon of the person

It seems to be almost universally true among parents that when their child is misbehaving, they will call them by their full name. “Michael Joseph Anthony Jones, what are you doing?!”

But why do all parents do this?

It seems like it is done instinctually. A clue may be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 2158 tells us, “God calls each one by name. Everyone's name is sacred. The name is the icon of the person. It demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears it.”

The name is the icon of the person.

As we have said, when we name our children, we name them who and what they are meant to be. It seems to me then that there is a deeper meaning here than merely a parent expressing exasperation with their child. No, especially when children are named after saints and loved ones, calling them by their full name must be considered a cri de coeur to remember who they are, and who they are meant to be. In a very real sense, it is holding their icon before them, and exclaiming to them: “Remember this image? This is who you are! This is who you are meant to be! Inscribed upon your icon are the icons of heroes past, of great men and women, of lost loved ones. You carry the name of your family.”

Phoebe’s middle name is Irene. She is named after her paternal grandmother, who passed away a few years ago. As she grows up, the icon of the name she bears will be painted with more and more brush strokes. Each one will tell of Irene’s great charity, her kindness, and her joy. Some day, I’ll tell her how Irene was always nothing less than a second mother to me. Although Irene bore 10 children from her body, she bore thousands more from her heart. When Phoebe Irene hears her name, she will be reminded who she is, and who she is meant to be: the light of Christ’s peace, and to bear His love in her heart, as her grandmother did, and does still.

That is the importance of a name.

Parents, let us remind our children who they are meant to be, not only when we feel they have forgotten, but before they have the chance to forget. We have spoken their name. In eternity, God has echoed it. And yet, while we are in time, we must be the echo of God’s call to them. We must daily hold up their icons and tell them, “Soon, Someone else will call you by name. Until then, I will, so that when you hear His voice, you will recognize your name. And then you will know: this was always who you were meant to be.”

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