Justinian the Great, emperor of Byzantium in the sixth century, reportedly identified himself as “Emperor Caesar Flavius, Justinianus, Alamanicus, Francicus, Germanicus, Anticus, Vandalicus, Africanus, Pious, Happy, Renowned, Conqueror and Triumpher, ever Augustus.”
Whew – now there’s a mouthful! Clearly he did not suffer from a negative self-image!
But I wonder: were his titles an indication of arrogance and hunger for power? Or did they instead remind him of his purpose in life as ruler (and thus caretaker) of the French, Germans, Africans, and others – as well as to be pious, happy, renowned?
Certainly Justinian took his role (if not also his names) seriously, for it was he who brought peace to most of the Mediterranean region and created the code that became the foundation of Roman law. So perhaps his names were not merely egregious and egotistical claims of hoped-for importance but rather statements of commitment to act as leader of all the nations and an awareness of the different personality characteristics required to do so.
Who knows? What’s in a name?
A lot! If you live in the wrong part of the world, you may be killed simply by virtue of having the wrong name. Consider Romeo and Juliet, the Hatfields and McCoys, and tribal conflicts throughout the world. Names are identities, far more powerful than mere words.
I am one of the privileged ones who entered this world with many advantages, of which the first and best is my name. Many people have horrific names that stick with them like a curse; but mine is a talisman, a peace offering, a blessing, both within me and to those around me. I can take no credit for it except to try to live up to the challenge it offers. But it is hard to be churlish when one has a name like Felicity. And so I’ve always been curious about how we choose names and whether the name creates the identity, or vice versa.
Names play an important part in the Bible, and people change names when they change identities. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Simon becomes Peter; Saul becomes Paul. Whenever someone has a radical transformation in identity or mission, he or she has a name change. Biblical name changes indicate a new covenant between that individual and God. Something fundamental is altered in the promise between God and that man or woman (as in the three Hebrew Bible characters), or the promise between him and Jesus (as in the case of Peter and Paul). The new name symbolizes commitment. Baptism, as the first sacrament in the life of a Christian, is in fact a naming ceremony.
In Nepal last month, I was intrigued that one of the children changed his name from “Vishnu” to “Nick” shortly after coming to live at New Life Children’s Home. Was it because being “Vishnu” (the “all-pervasive” Hindu god who is expected to recognize and counteract evil influences in all its guises) was too burdensome? Or did he change his name along with his cultural identity when he acknowledged his new American father? Was “Nick” just cute (I affectionately called him “slick Nick” because of his theatrical flair) or was it connected with St. Nicholas?
I never asked his reasons for changing his name. (It seemed too personal.) But as I heard the story of his life before and after coming to New Life, it was clear that there were two children: Vishnu (who could remember nothing of his early childhood other than filth, stench, hunger, and homelessness) and Nick (who was happy, sensitive, playful, enthusiastic, and tender.)
And he isn’t the only one with a name change. Within an hour of coming to New Life, the children had given me a new name. Like the others, I would be called “Auntie” or “Uncle,” for this is the Nepali way for showing respect for elders while also acknowledging us as close enough to be extended family. In our case, there was “Auntie Carla,” “Auntie Kymri,” “Auntie Kalar,” and “Uncle Brett.” But “Felicity” had too many syllables and was too unfamiliar. So, without thinking, I simply explained that “felicity” means “happiness.”
Aarghhh. Without a pause, I was named “Auntie Happy.” Then, concerned that “Auntie” would be misunderstood as “anti,” it was modified to “Aunt Happy.” Vishnu became Nick; Felicity became Aunt Happy.
Honored, I did my best to life up to my name.
But it was a challenge.
What would Justinian say? What would Jesus say?
Is being “Aunt Happy” within my power? Or is it a gift from God?
In Nepal, there were occasions when I was happy as well as times when I was an agent of grace. But my happiness was a gift from others – it was their happiness that enveloped me rather than the result of anything I had done. Further, it was clear that my ability to be an accidental agent of grace was a gift from God – and the children also.
It was they who believed in me. And, as a result, I was changed, transformed. Though inadequate, I was baptized by their love.
I am humbled. I am happy.