If the political movements of the second half of the 20th century taught us anything, it was that names matter. It matters that a mature African-American male be addressed as “Mr.” or “Sir” and not as “Boy.” It matters that a married woman be free to choose the surname by which she will be known. It matters, because names are more than labels.
Since ancient times, travelers have journeyed to sites of religious significance in order to deepen their faith. But I’ve never been much of a pilgrim. I was raised a Pentecostal, and in one regard our brand of faith was very modern: unlike most premodern people, we did not recognize any “sacred places.” For us, all places were alike to God because God had created them all.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? asks Isaiah. Those with ears to hear, let them hear, says Jesus. Day to day pours forth speech, says the psalmist, but God’s speech is pitched in such a register that many cannot distinguish it from silence.
Names are sacred words by which we are individualized. Jesus, in baptism, received a new name. So do his followers. Baptism also sets each of us apart as a particular kind of person—one owned by God. Those who have been baptized are called to live out the meaning of this remarkable reality.
Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Memorial, was explaining to a TV interviewer why her remarkable work has come to have such a strong grip upon the emotions of the American people. “It’s the names,” she said, “the names are the memorial.