Familiarity and awe, in tight conjunction, are the mark of Christian prayer.– Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis
In this second petition from the Lord’s Prayer, Christ Jesus instructs us to say: “Hallowed be thy name.” It is the expression of a wish that the name of God be treated with reverence, as something holy. It is in the Book of Exodus, where Moses encounters the Lord in the burning bush, that we first receive the name of God. After giving Moses the task of demanding that the Egyptians let the Israelites out of bondage, Moses anticipates that Pharaoh will demand to know which of the gods is making such a demand, so Moses asks God to reveal His name. But the Lord God is not one god among the gods. He is God, and He reveals to Moses that His name is mysterious: “I am who am.”
Names make things accessible to us. They establish the existence of a relationship, and reveal that we know another person, that we might even enjoy influence over them. Consider the practice of name-dropping. It can be tempting to refer to the names of people we know as a way of gaining access to people and places, or of getting ourselves out of trouble. There are times when it is appropriate to speak the name of someone in conversation. But when we develop the habit of dropping names, it can end up emptying the names of their power to “open doors” for us. People no longer pay attention when they hear the name of someone spoken so freely in this way.
Thus, the Lord gives us His name, but it’s a name that remains mysterious, outside our grasp. The Commandment: “Thou shall not use the name of the Lord in vain”, exists to preserve and protect the holiness and the power of the name of God. The ancient Israelites treated the name of God as a word so sacred that it is rendered unpronounceable in the scriptures as YHWH. Liturgically, the name was uttered only once a year by the High Priest in the holiest part of the Temple. To this day, when they read the scriptures aloud and come upon it, pious Jewish people always substitute “The Lord” for the name of God. So, while God makes Himself accessible to the Israelites by revealing His name to them, He warns them through the Commandment that it is not a name to be spoken or treated casually.
Yet, in this petition, we are told to speak of it as “thy name.” To our modern ears, “thy” sounds very formal. But, in truth, it’s informal. In the grammar of many other languages, there are two ways of addressing people – a formal way and an informal way. In Spanish, when we address someone formally, we say “usted,” the informal address being “tu.” The French equivalent is “vous/tu.” In Italian, it’s “lei/tu.” As English has developed, that distinction between formal/informal address has fallen out of usage, but it still exists. “You” is actually the formal address, whereas “thou” is the informal way of speaking to someone. “Hallowed be your name” is actually more formal than “hallowed be thy name.” So, while we are instructed to express our desire that the name of God be set apart, kept holy in our treatment of it, we are nonetheless invited into an intimate relationship with Him, addressing God familiarly.
With the Incarnation of God the Son, we can and do speak the name of Jesus in our prayer. By revealing to us His name, Our Lord opens the possibility of intimate relationship with us, but He also takes the risk of His name being abused. When we pray this petition, “Hallowed by thy name,” it should it remind us also to treat as precious the Holy Name of Jesus. By speaking His name with tender devotion and love, may it be a way of making reparation for the all-to-common abuse of that name – the only name by which we are saved (Acts 4:12).