June 18, 2012
At this point, we must ask an even more fundamental and general question: What does it mean to speak of a “name of God”? When God receives names in the Old Testament, can this be anything more than a reminiscence of the polytheistic world in which Israel’s faith in God was obliged to struggle step by step to find its own form? This view may seem to find support in the fact that the individual names of God, which are numerous in the early strata of the tradition, disappear gradually, as the Old Testament faith develops; although the name “Yahweh” is retained, the Second Commandment meant that it had ceased to be uttered long before the time of Jesus. The New Testament no longer knows any proper name of God; one contributory factor here was the fact that in the Greek Old Testament, the name “Yahweh” had already been largely replaced by the term “Lord”. But this is only one aspect of the matter. It is indeed true that the individual names of God disappear once the polytheistic beginnings are left behind; but is also true that the idea that God has a name plays a decisive role precisely in the New Testament. In many ways, one may regard the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel as the high point of the development of the New Testament faith, and this brief text speaks four times of “the name of God”. The principal part of the text, in verses 6 and 26, is set within the framework of Jesus’ testimony to his own mission, which consists in making known to men the name of God. Jesus appears here as the new Moses who now accomplishes completely and in reality what had begun in a fragmentary and hidden manner at the burning bush in the wilderness.
What, then, does “the name of God” mean? Perhaps it is easiest to grasp what this entails if we look at its opposite. The Revelation of John speaks of the adversary of God, the “beast”. This beast, the power opposed to God, has no name, but a number. The seer tells us: “Its number is six hundred and sixty-six” (13:18). It is a number, and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the world of the concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces. It obliterates their history. It makes man a number, an exchangable cog in one big machine. He is his function — nothing more. Today, we must fear that the concentration camp was only a prelude and that the universal law of the machine may impose the structure of the concentration camp on the world as a whole. For when functions are all that exist, man, too, is nothing more than a function. The machines that he himself has constructed now impose their own law on him: he must be made readable for the computer, and this can only be achieved when he is translated into numbers. Everything else in man becomes irrelevant. Whatever is not a function is — nothing. The beast is a number, and it makes men numbers. But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and seeks our heart. For him, we are not some function in a “world machinery”. On the contrary, it is precisely those who have no function that are his own. A name allows me to be addressed. A name denotes community. This is why Christ is the true Moses, the fulfillment of the revelation of God’s name. He does not bring some new word as God’s name; he does more than this, since he himself is the face of God. He himself is the name of God. In him, we can address God as “you”, as person, as heart. His own name, Jesus, brings the mysterious name at the burning bush to its fulfillment; now we can see that God had not said all that he had to say but had interrupted his discourse for a time. This is because the name “Jesus” in its Hebrew form includes the name “Yahweh” and adds a further element to it: God “saves”. “I am who I am” — thanks to Jesus, this now means: “I am the one who saves you.” His Being is salvation.
Joseph Ratzinger, in a 1973 sermon collected by Ignatius in The God of Jesus Christ.