Americans today tend to think of names as more or less means of conventional signification. To speak of Bloomington when I mean Indiana University or to say West Lafayette in place of Purdue draws on our human capacity to reason and apply language as representational of concepts. The modern man typically thinks words don’t have any inherent power; words are just formulations to which we have assigned meaning. But on the other hand, to dare to say the Fighting Irish, the Hoosiers or the Boilermakers, brings something altogether different to a conversation. These names powerfully inspire or instantly cause contempt! No one in their right mind cheers for “South Bend” at a Notre Dame football game—there’s simply something far more formidable evoked by that passionate cry, “GO IRISH!”
Many ancient cultures, as well as the philosophers of antiquity, believed names were far more than simply instruments of conventional signification. A name functions like a sort of shadow or emanation capable of bringing part of the reality it represents into the present moment. Thus in the Jewish and Christian traditions blessing or cursing by a particular name carries weighty significance. When we speak a name, we’re not blithely uttering a combination of signs or symbols: we’re daring to invoke realities of eternal consequence.
In Catholic tradition, particular reverence has long been offered to the Holy Name, Jesus, by customs such as bowing the head or even genuflecting. Sacred Scripture itself assures us of the power of the name of Jesus: for example, consider the words of the evangelist, “If you ask the Father anything in my name he will give it you” (Jn 16:23). Likewise St Mark tells us, “In my name they shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover” (Mk 16:17-18). The name of Jesus has the strength to heal, gives comfort in the midst of spiritual trial and protects Christians from the wiles of the enemy.
When we stop and examine everything which the name of Jesus elicits, we should not be surprised to learn that Christian tradition quickly began to reverence the name of Mary. As early as the second century Christian women began adopting the name ‘Mary’ and artistic depictions of Mary were frequently accompanied by inscriptions bearing her name. But in fact, a direct link connects the name of Jesus, which evokes his teaching, his miracles and above all his atoning sacrifice on the cross, to Mary, owing to her truly unique place in the Divine plan of salvation.
When we call upon the name of Mary, we’re not only invoking her aid as an intercessor to Christ, but as a conduit or dispenser of grace. When Mary assented to God’s plan of salvation, by saying “yes” at the moment of the Incarnation, she intervened on behalf of every human person. St. Thomas Aquinas notes that Mary’s acceptance by her free will to become the Mother of God at the moment of the Annunciation demonstrates the close spiritual connection between Christ and all of humanity. Only after Mary’s “yes” did Jesus Christ become a man and die for our sins. Therefore, far from feeling like devotion to Mary and her Holy Name pushes us further from God, we can continue to meditate and to examine how she binds us to Him all the more closely.
But how can we digest some of those more complicated, or–for some–less savory teachings of the Church? How can we grow closer to the Blessed Mother? By praying her Holy Name, Mary. Simple prayers like, “Jesus. Mary. I love you” or “Jesus. Mary. Save souls” do more good than perhaps we realize. Another way to grow closer to Mary, is of course the Rosary (which if you think about it diligently repeats the names of Jesus and Mary). But others might prefer something beautiful to listen to, and so for your prayerful delight, this post features a recording of several Dominican friars chanting the Litany of Loreto. The Litany includes many titles rich with meaning in the Christian theological tradition.
Let us not be afraid then to call upon the name of Mary. As Blessed Pope John Paul II says, “Mary shares our human condition, but in complete openness to the grace of God…She understands sinful man and loves him with a Mother’s love.” We can turn to Mary, allow her name to fall from our lips, and be assured our pleas will not fall on deaf ears.