By Fr. James Honeycutt
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
—William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” Act II, Scene ii
After discovering her love interest Romeo is from the warring Montague family, Juliet attempts to discount the importance of a name in Shakespeare’s famous story. In one sense I agree with Juliet. Labels used to identify people or things can change without it affecting their deeper essence. Yet I must acknowledge the fact that a different perspective is offered in Holy Scripture. The purpose of this brief article is to help those in the Church understand the importance of what are called “name days” and why the adoption of a Christian name is practiced.
The first Orthodox person I remember meeting was a priest who introduced himself as “Father Gregory,” and several months passed before I was to learn this was not his legal name. Rather, he had taken the name of the great Theologian at his ordination. For those of us not raised in the Orthodox Church, this concept can seem a bit odd. What is the purpose? When would I identify myself by this Saint’s name? And where did this tradition begin?
After the sixth day of the creation narrative, God parades all the animals of the earth before Adam who is instructed to name each one:
Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field (Genesis 2:19-20).
God instructs our human ancestors to “have dominion over the earth” (Gen. 1:26-28). Their role, in part, is to oversee the earth and be good stewards of its resources. The naming of these animals shows humanity’s authority over creation. It is an exercise of power to name someone or something. One of the first things a new couple does after having a child is to name him or her, a name they will call out many times throughout that child’s life. Any sensible person knows better than to tell a new parent their baby’s name has no real significance.
As we read further into the Old Testament we see the Jewish Patriarch Abram receiving the name Abraham (Gen. 17:5); and his grandson, Jacob, later is given the name Israel after wrestling with the Angel of God (Gen. 35:10). In the New Testament, Simon is named Peter by our Lord at their initial meeting just before Christ’s earthly ministry begins (Jn. 1:42). What is common in these examples is a change of identity, not simple a change of name. It indicates a transitional moment in their lives—a nodal event, as psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen would call it. Their new name signifies that something profound has just taken place or is about to take place, and this new name marks the occasion. They will never be the same again.
It is with this in mind that the Church instructs newly baptized Christians to select the name of an Orthodox Saint. Now I have met many parishioners who either do not know their patron Saint or, if they do, are not sure after which “John” or “Mary” they are named. Unlike “cradle Orthodox” who were baptized as infants, those received into the Church as adults are encouraged to consider what name they wish to adopt. While it may be tempting to select a name because you like the sound of it, I encourage candidates to choose a Saint whose life resonates with them. Granted, this requires a bit of research; but the goal is to have a special connection with our patron Saint. They modeled the Faith with their holy lives and continue to pray on our behalf. Just as we would ask living friends and family to pray for us, our patron Saint, and others who have fallen asleep in the Lord, are still united to us in the Body (Church), with Christ as the Head (Col. 1:18). I love to talk about Saint James the Just, brother of the Lord, Holy Martyr, and first Bishop of Jerusalem! When October 23rd roles around each year, I know it is time to get out the red vestments and say a unique Liturgy (of Saint James) in his memory. I trust that Saint James prays for me, my family, and the service I offer the Church as a priest.
Our patron Saints inspire us to follow Christ as they did, so it is a name used in the Church. It is our Saint name we give when approaching for Holy Communion, Unction, Marriage, and other sacraments. Christians in the early Church did not celebrate their birthdays, but rather their name days. Instead of expecting gifts and cake on our name day, we serve others in honor of our patron Saint. If your name day falls on a weekend, it is a great occasion to host (or co-host) coffee hour. Should your day fall during the week, consider serving at your local soup kitchen. Prayerfully reflect on sending a donation to International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), Friends of the Metropolis, or some other work of the Church in memory of your Saint.
For those Orthodox who have not given much consideration to their name day in the past, I would encourage you to learn more about your patron Saint, make a note in the calendar, and begin setting it aside as a special day of observance. I like to imagine that when we are escorted by the angels of God into the presence of Christ, our patron Saint will be standing nearby to greet us as a trusted friend.
May the blessing of the Lord and His mercy be with us all. Amen.
Fr. James Honeycutt is the Priest of the Annunciation Church in Muskegon, MI