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The mystery of the name: as you live, you are known

> Formation Progress > The mystery of the name: as you live, you are known

1. The name in the nine-year-old’s dream

If we try to see the theme of the ‘name’ in the dream of the nine-year-old, we notice, first of all, the appearance of the venerable man with the shining face whom little John cannot look at because he is blinded. The man nobly dressed in white puts an end to the violent squabble between the laughing and blaspheming children and little John. The mysterious person peremptorily calls him by name and imposes an order on him. “He called me by name”: it is a fundamental biblical reference, when God calls by name, he always entrusts a mission (Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Mary, Peter, Saul…). It indicates that the initiative is always God’s who first pronounces the name and makes it real. “God said light and the light was”. God calls John Bosco by name and indicates to him the Preventive System “not with blows but with meekness and charity you must win these friends of yours”. After pronouncing his name and indicating a mission, at this point, John Bosco feels the need to know the name. Twice he asks: “Who are you who command me what is impossible? ….But who are you, who speak like this?”. It is proper for man to know, to ask himself questions from reality, to understand… this is also the case for John.

Although he is small, he has a quick and alert intelligence and a desire to understand who the mysterious character is who asks him a seemingly impossible question. The response of the luminous character reflects divine pedagogy: “I am the son of she whom your mother taught you to greet three times a day”. The knowledge of the divine name will come about for John Bosco and in Salesian spirituality through the maternal mediation of Mary. Just as it happened for the incarnation of the Word, where his “here I am” was necessary, so to know, enter into relationship, experience the power of Jesus, it is necessary to pass through his mother Mary. And again, this knowledge occurs in prayer through the very gentle call of the Angelus prayer three times a day in a peasant society. The mystery of the name must be asked of the mother, thus concludes the character who disappears from the scene: “Ask my mother for my name”. In the life of Don Bosco, how true this statement is: the heartfelt prayer before Our Lady of Graces in Chieri to understand his vocation, the indication of the place of the martyrdom of Saints Salutore, Adventore and Ottavio so that the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians would be built there, the understanding of the dream with tears in his eyes on 16th May 1887 before the altar of Mary Help of Christians in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

To understand the name, to know the mystery behind it, to know Jesus is not a one-off operation that happens once in a lifetime, but rather it is the fruit of an ongoing process that begins, lasts a lifetime, and grows to the full maturity of Christ, until he is formed in you (Gal 4:19).

2. The name in the Bible

In the Bible, the imposition of a name is the characteristic statement of a person (Adam calls his woman issah because she is). Throughout the Semitic world, the name is the very reality of a thing, the knowledge of the name implies a kind of power over the being whose essence and energy is known. The famous text in which God reveals his name is contained in chapter 3 of the book of Exodus. God is revealed not with a noun but with a verb (hjh, “to be, to become, to continue to be). Thus, the sacred and unutterable four-letter tetragrammaton for the Hebrews (JHWH) is configured. In reality, the text of Ex 3:14, rather than a definition and revelation of the divine name, contains a denial of revelation. “I am who I am” is perhaps an affirmation of God’s unknowable essence rather than a definition of God’s eternity (“He who is always”) or of his faithfulness (“He who is always faithful”) or even of his beingness, as classical Christian philosophy wanted.

However, this appellation ‘I am’ is not empty because it evokes the exact point at which God reveals Himself: the story of the Exodus in which He presents Himself as liberator and Saviour. As Martin Buber put it, it could be translated as ‘I am present, there where I will be present… I am present always’.

3. The story of Moses (Ex 3:1-10; Acts 7:30, 31)

What does he do? The first thing Moses does is marvel. Standing there in the desert, while he is grazing his father-in-law’s flock, he sees a burning bush in the distance and it seems to him that it continues to burn without being consumed. Moses, who is 80 years old, is capable of marvelling at something, of being interested in something new: a burning bush that burns but is not consumed. He could have said: ‘There is fire; it is dangerous for the flock if the fire spreads; let us go away, let us take the sheep far away’. Or he could have said: ‘There is something supernatural; it is better not to be caught in a trap; let us leave and let the younger ones, those with more enthusiasm, take an interest: I have already had my experiences and that is enough’. Instead, ‘Moses marvelled’, that is, he was taken by that capacity, which is proper to the child, to be interested in something new, to think that there is still something new. So, Moses marvelled, and instead of not caring and going away, “he drew near to see”; the text says much more than ‘seeing’; it indicates the nous (katanoesai), the mind, thus looking, considering, reflecting, seeking to understand etc. Here we see the freedom of spirit achieved by Moses through purification. Had he been an embittered and resigned man, he would have merely concluded: “A strange thing, but it does not concern me”. But no: he wants to understand, he wants to see what it is all about. Here is a living man, even if he is old. “Moses said to himself, ‘I want to draw near to see this great spectacle, for the bush does not burn'” (Ex 3:3). 

Moses is a man who allows questions to emerge within himself; he is no longer the man who has everything sorted out and catalogued, who has understood everything; he is a man who is still capable of asking himself questions that demand a careful answer. One can suppose a situation of this kind: in the desert there are different plateaus, one on top of the other, and often one has to make a long round trip to get to the higher plateau; Moses is on a lower plateau with his sheep, he sees on a higher plateau the bush and says: “I will go up, I will make the round trip, I want to see what it is all about”. Which means leaving the flock, perhaps even in danger, going up in the sun, etc. In the words ‘I want to go up and see this great spectacle’, then, we glimpse Moses’ spirit; it is as if Moses were saying: ‘I am a poor man, a failure, but God can do new things, and I want to take an interest, I want to understand, I want to know why’. Notice that here the great question that Moses had been asking himself for 40 years returns: ‘But why did God allow that failure? Why, if he loves his people, did he not use me to save them? Why did he not take the opportunity that I gave him?”. This ‘why’, which Moses cultivated, refined and purified, here it emerges again in the face of that unexpected vision. This ‘knowing’ in Moses is something that simmers within him, it is a passion that has not fallen asleep, but rather purification has made it simpler, freer. Moses does not go to the mountain in search of a new personal success; he goes because he wants to know how things are, he wants to face the truth as it is. 

What does he listen to?Ex. 3:4-6. The text says: “The Lord saw that he came near to see, and God called him from the bush and said, Moses, Moses. Moses hears his name. Imagine Moses’ shock of fear and amazement at the same time, when he hears himself called in the desert, in a place where there is not a soul. Moses realises that there is someone who knows his name, someone who is interested in him; he believed himself to be an outcast, a failure, an abandoned person: yet someone calls out his name in the middle of the desert. It is a violent experience, one that perhaps we too have had when, finding ourselves in a place where we thought we were completely ignored, we suddenly hear someone calling our name.

Moses now hears himself called by name twice: “Moses, Moses”. Moses also feels that a decisive moment has come for his life: it is the moment when he must be truly available, without making the mistakes of the first time; therefore, he is filled with fear: “What is about to happen to me?”. And here Moses hears something that he perhaps did not expect. He who had flung himself with such ardour to see the burning bush, would have been pleased to hear: ‘Thank you that you have come, that you have not let bitterness overcome you’; and instead, he hears that voice telling him: “Do not come near, take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is a holy land”. Moses, with all his ardour, was trying to do the same thing: to see, that is, that phenomenon of the burning bush as framed in his view of God, of history and of God’s presence in history. And so God says to him: “Moses, this is not the way; take off your sandals, for you do not come to me to encapsulate me in your own ideas; it is not you who must integrate me into your personal synthesis, but it is I who want to integrate you into my project”. Moses, therefore, hears: “Do not come near, first take the sandals off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground”. Imagine Moses’ shock on hearing these words.

Is this a holy land? This cursed desert, a place of jackals, of desolation, of barrenness, where only bandits like to come, where decent people do not dwell? This desert where I thought myself abandoned, miserable, bankrupt: is this a holy land? Is this the presence of God? Is this the place where God reveals himself? 

What does this mean? At this point, Moses understands what the divine initiative is: it is not he who seeks God, and therefore must go, in order to find him, to purified and holy places; it is God who seeks Moses and seeks him where he is. And the place where Moses is, whatever it may be, even if it is a miserable, abandoned, resourceless, cursed place, that is the holy land; there is the presence of God, there the glory of God is manifested. We can contemplate how Moses experienced his own change of horizon, his true conversion, his new way of knowing God. Until now God was for Moses one for whom much had to be done: one had to make a revolution, sacrifice one’s own position of privilege, throw oneself out to one’s brothers, spend oneself for them, only to be still discouraged and thrown away. Now at last, Moses begins to understand; God is different: until now he had known him as one who exploits you for a while and then abandons you, a master more demanding than the others, …more than Pharaoh; now he begins to understand that he is a God of mercy and love, who takes care of him, the last among the failed and forgotten by his people.

Then Moses goes on to hear more words: “Again God said: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob'” (Ex. 3:6). Moses realised that he did not understand anything about God; in any case, he thought that this was a new, different God. But behold, God says to him: ‘I am the God of your fathers; if you had understood me, you would have realised that I am the same God, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob; I acted like that with them too’. The Lord was a God who cares for those who are forsaken, those who feel hopeless and failed. In vv. 7ff. he continues: ‘The Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their overseers. For I know their sufferings; I have come down to deliver them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them out of this land to a land that is beautiful and spacious, where milk and honey flow. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me and I myself have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians torment them’.

How careful is the diction, all in the first person: I have seen, I have heard, I have come down, etc. … “You, Moses, thought you were a man of much learning and much versed in the knowledge of man; you thought you understood your brothers, their misery; you thought it was you who took the initiative to understand them, and then begged me to understand them too; yet it is I who understand them first, it is I who understand all these things, it is I who see and hear. You, Moses, thought you were the first to discover the beauty of freedom, eager as you were to make it be enjoyed, and you did not succeed; but all this came from me. You never thought that this was my work, and instead you threw yourself into it, thinking that the work was all yours, that everything depended on you. Now you realise that I see, I feel…; indeed, if there is any compassion in you for the people, it comes from me; if there is any sense of freedom in you, it is I who give it to you; if there is any curiosity in you, it is mine”. 

4. For the concreteness of the path

In the ritual of the Jewish Passover dinner (aggadà), some of the boys listening to the story of the Passover night behave differently. One of them is sleepy; another says: “But what does this Egypt thing matter to me?” Still another asks: “Why are we celebrating this feast and what does this feast mean to us?” This is the attitude of Moses and John Bosco, who ask that fundamental question: “how come?” “What is your name?”. A good educator does not only know how to give answers, but first of all knows how to provoke questions. Some educational attitudes help in this arduous task: arousing wonder (thaumazein in Greek) and making memory (zakar in Hebrew).

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