What’s in a Name?

Today, on this Third Sunday of Lent, we find Moses quietly tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. (Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15) When he came to Horeb, the mountain of God, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in the form of a burning bush. Not knowing what it was, but curious that the flames did not consume it, Moses decided to examine “this remarkable sight.”

When the Lord saw Moses approaching, he called out, “Moses!  Moses!” Moses responded: “Here I am.”  God told Moses to come no nearer and to remove his sandals because he was standing on “holy ground.”  The reason for the ground’s sacredness was that the God of Moses’s ancestors was present – “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

God continued to speak to the now fearful Moses. He tells Moses that he has witnessed the people’s affliction and heard their cry.  He knew well their suffering, and thus the reason for his appearing to Moses. He has chosen Moses to lead his people from their slavery in Egypt and guide them into the Promised Land flowing “with milk and honey.”

Moses, however, is not sure he wants to be commandeered for such a daunting task. He envisions himself going to his people, saying, “God told me to tell you that I am to lead all you out of Egypt and into a faraway place called the Promised Land.” They, being incredulous, would simply laugh at him.  Moreover, they may ask, “What is the name of this God who is supposed to have spoken to you? What do I say then?”

To these concerns, God replies: “I am who am.” He added: “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.”

Normally names are nouns and thus inform us of what something is.  The noun “tree” contains the meaning of what a tree is.  The noun “woman” informs us of the sexual classification of one of two types of human beings.  In knowing the noun-name, we know what something is.

So what’s in God’s name?  What is the “what-ness” of God?  When God informed Moses of his name, he does not give himself a noun-name, but a verb: “I am who am,” or simply, “I AM.”  God, unlike everything else that exists, is simply BEING.  What he is, his “what-ness,” is simply “To Be Being.”  He does not have a nature, a what-ness, other than Being Itself.

Now, under normal circumstances, to know the name of something gives us clarity as to what it is. In knowing the name of God, however, something fascinating and marvelous takes place.  Moses, and we, may now know God’s name, but in knowing God’s name, God becomes more mysterious, for none of us can comprehend what it means to be the pure act of existence.

The more we know about God, the more astonishingly mysterious He becomes, and yet the more wondrously awe-inspiring we find Him to be.


Lent is a time when we prepare to celebrate an even greater divine mystery – the saving mystery of the all-holy Trinity, that He-Who-is is the Father who, in the love of the Holy Spirit, eternally begets his beloved Son.  God is not simply then the God who IS, but a Trinity of life-giving and love-giving persons.

The mystery of the Trinity is beyond all comprehension, and yet it should engender within us, even more than what was revealed to Moses, a corresponding love, praise, and adoration.  During Lent and the Paschal Triduum the loving and life-giving mystery is not only simply set before us, but is also a mystery into which we are conjoined.

God the Father witnessed the affliction of our sin and heard the cry of the dying.  He did not commandeer a human being to help us, for no mere human being, even Moses, could free us from sin and death.  Rather, the loving Father sent his beloved Son into the world and that Son became man by the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, the Father’s Son, lovingly offered up his Spirit-filled holy and innocent human life to his Father on our behalf so that our sin could be forgiven and death could be vanquished.  In so doing, the Father raised his incarnate Son from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Because of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus, the gloriously risen Son of the Father, can pour out his Holy Spirit on all who believe in him (in Baptism we are recreated in Jesus’ own risen likeness). We become new creations in Christ, who are freed from sin and death – and taken up into the heavenly Promised Land that is life with the Triune God.

In Jesus Christ, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are in communion with the Father as His sons and daughters. We can never comprehend the Trinity, but what is ultimately important is that we are subsumed into the very life of this incomprehensible mystery.

This is the mystery we prepare to celebrate this Lent – the Good Friday mystery of Jesus’ death and the Easter Sunday mystery of His Resurrection, mysteries into which we are born anew.

These mysteries are fully expressed and realized within the Eucharistic Liturgy.  In the Mass, we are conjoined to Jesus’ one holy sacrifice and, together with Him, we offer ourselves to the Father in the love of the Holy Spirit.  In the Eucharist, we truly come into communion with the risen Jesus, the Father’s Son, and so, in the Holy Spirit, we are taken up into the very presence of His Father.

The life and love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit become our life and love.  The mystery of the Trinity becomes the mystery that we now are.

All of this is a true reality because the one God, He-Who-Is, is rightly named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


*Image: Moses and the Burning Bush, with Moses Removing His Shoes by Dierick Bouts the Elder, c. 1470 [Philadelphia Museum of Art]

Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, a prolific writer and one of the most prominent living theologians, is a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. His newest book is the third volume of Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Gospel of John: The Book of Glory and the Passion and Resurrection Narratives.