What’s in a name?

Mark 9:2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one* on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings,* one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

Church of the Transfiguration

The Church of the Transfiguration

What’s in a name? The church I grew up in was named after this event in the gospel, the Transfiguration. For those not clear on Transfiguration, as I was for most of the years I attended the church of my youth, here is the first part of the definition according to Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:

Transfiguration, the. The appearing of the Lord in glory during His earthly life, related in the first three Gospels and alluded to in 2 Peter.  This vision of the Lord, transfigured, with Moses and Eliijah, was witnessed by Sts Peter, James, and John and is described they the Evangelists as a historic event…(1648)

It wasn’t until the last years of worshiping in this parish that I even thought to know what was behind the name.  And that prompt was simply because a visitor asked me if the church was a legitimate Episcopal church.  He had just moved to the area and was puzzled by the name, having concluded it was some sort of hippie-dippie west coast nomenclature. And although I had vague recollections of celebrating the Transfiguration on the last Sunday of Epiphany, I really had connected no dots to the theological significance of the event.  The name was never unpacked for me in all of the bible studies, worship, and sermons I was exposed to in my youth at the Church of the Transfiguration.

I don’t think my ignorance about the church name was that odd, anymore than the visitor’s who was also raised in The Episcopal Church. But he was raised in a different part of the country where most parishes followed suit with the Anglican tradition of naming after Saints, biblical and extra-biblical, and concepts (Grace, Trinity, Epiphany, Ascension).  In dioceses that have a history in America dating back to Colonial times, most parish names fall within the first 25 of the 12o plus names of parishes across the country, as below.

  1. Christ  – 527
  2. St. John –  524
  3. Trinity  – 520
  4. St. Paul  – 488
  5. St. Andrew – 311
  6. Grace – 281
  7. St. James – 276
  8. St. Luke – 261
  9. St. Mark – 244
  10. All Saints – 237
  11. St. Peter – 210
  12. St. Mary – 206
  13. St. Stephen – 173
  14. Good Shepherd – 170
  15. St. Thomas – 149
  16. Chapel – 146
  17. St. Michael – 128
  18. St. Matthew – 123
  19. St. George – 101
  20. St. Francis – 95
  21. St. Alban – 92
  22. Ascension -91
  23. Epiphany – 91
  24. Emmanuel – 89
  25. St. Philip – 85

So what is in a name – a church name  – and how does it inform our faith formation? Does it? Should it?

I think parish leaders are remiss to not share the story of a parish name and weave it into the fabric of faith formation for all of the community.  To not do so is a bit like a parent naming a child and never telling them why.  Even if the name doesn’t have the grandest of histories in the parent’s view – or the parish leader’s view – the story should be shared, told, unpacked.

Just as there are stories behind the names we are given at birth, the stories behind our worshiping communities have potential for shaping and maturing us, in some way.

story behind nameI went through a stage where I hated my name and tried very hard to get people to call me by my middle name. I thought my first name was ‘too young’ sounding in those years when I wanted to be taken seriously.  I was all of twelve when I tried to make the switch, and though quite young, I was looking ahead at life as a professional this or that and thought my first name would not do – wouldn’t get me there.

Needless to say, no one cooperated.  My first name stuck.  Not many this day even know my middle name.

But during that time, my parents embellished the story behind my name – trying to convince me that I was wrong about it sounding childlike, telling me grand stories of how they landed upon it – romaticizing it to great extent.  I appreciated hearing those stories – the story behind the story- of how they picked my name – how it was the only name the two of them agreed to almost in unison.  I came to appreciate my name and the story behind it helped me know myself a bit more deeply.  How shallow-minded I had been to want to discard it because it sounded odd and youngish and not serious enough for me, myself and I. Ugh.

Well, I think that same dynamic was at work when my friend asked me about my parish’s name, the Transfiguration.  It sounded odd to him – couldn’t have been an Episcopal Church – no “St” before or high theological concept like Grace or Trinity.  He had presumed it a west-coast hippie-dippie odd duck. But his query lead us to uncover the story of Transfiguration.  It is a good parish name.  A wonderful one, actually, for teaching a Christian community a bit more about who they are and what they believe.

What do you know about the saint or concept your parish is named after?

Teaching moments – that’s all this is about.  As parents, as church leaders, I think it good to be aware of all the teaching moments that come our way and make good effort to not take any of the important stuff for granted.  Like our names and our stories.

Praise Him.

Friday Daily Office Lectionary:

AM Psalm 95 [for the Invitatory] 102; PM Psalm 107:1-32
Exod. 2:1-22; 1 Cor. 12:27-13:3; Mark 9:2-13

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