Written by: Raph Ma
After having so recently celebrated the great solemnities of Christmas, Mary Mother of God, and the feast of the Holy Family, the incarnational nature of our Faith should still be fresh on our minds.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it…” [1 John 1:1-2]
And today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.
You’ve probably seen the letters “IHS” decorating many vestments, stained glass windows, altars, paintings, chalices, and just about every other piece of sacred art imaginable. The letters “IHS” represent Jesus’ name. This monogram developed from abbreviating Jesus’ name in Greek “ΙΗΣΟUΣ” to just the first 3 letters: “ΙΗΣ”, and then over time, rendering it in its latin alphabet equivalents in western Europe, where almost all the languages use some form of the latin alphabet.
You’ve also probably noticed some people who make a very slight bow of the head at the name of Jesus during Mass [GIRM 275], and even outside of Mass. What is the meaning of all this?
Well, for starters, it’s an ancient devotion. Devotions are extensions of the Church’s liturgical life, which should always “in some way derive from it and lead the people to it” [CCC 1675]. This is because the Faith is much more than just an abstract system of ideas, however relevant and logically coherent such a system might appear. The Faith is a whole way of living, because Jesus didn’t just say that He was the truth, but that He is way, the truth, and the life.
Since God’s revelation of His name to Moses at the burning bush, the Jews have maintained the highest reverence for God’s name, and would not pronounce it directly, saying instead “LORD” when reading the scriptures or praying, and referring to it as “the Name” at other times. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus” [Luke 1:31].
Does this mean then that we shouldn’t say the name of Jesus directly either? The Catechism, quoting St. John Damascene explains why we can: “Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that He has made Himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God… and contemplate the glory of the Lord, His face unveiled” [CCC 1159] Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of God. His name, like His incarnation, is a revelation of the “invisible and incomprehensible” God, and because of that momentous event, we may now speak and venerate the name of Jesus, in the same way as we may make and venerate images of Him.
This veneration of the Most Holy Name of Jesus has occurred in many different ways over the centuries throughout the Church, both in the East and in the West, and it was loved by all the saints and has borne much fruit in their lives. The Catechism points out that every prayer in the liturgy is prayed “through our Lord Jesus Christ” [CCC 435], and that mysteriously, “His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies” [CCC 2666]. After all, didn’t Jesus promise?
Jesus, by Catholic Chapter House.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” [Matthew 18:20]