Cornerstone: Devotion to the Holy Name

by Jonathan Gaworski


Reverence for the name of Jesus is at least as old as the New Testament. In his “Christ Hymn of Philippians,” St. Paul proclaims that “God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place and gave Him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow” (Phil. 2:10). This early Christian devotion instantiated in St. Paul's hymn grew out of the immemorial Jewish tradition of reverencing the name of God. The second commandment of the Decalogue instructs the Jewish people not to take the name of the Lord in vain. Within Judaism, respect for the name of the God of Israel was so profound that Jews seldom uttered the name “I AM” by which the Lord revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The Christian devotion to the name of Jesus stems first and foremost from the recognition of Jesus’ divinity. To reverence the name of Jesus and acknowledge the power of His name is to recognize that Jesus is one with the God of Israel. The name of Jesus is a name of a Divine Person.


Further implications of devotion to the name of Jesus are further rooted in the tradition of the Jewish people, due to the practice of bestowing a name upon male children at their circumcision. A Jewish male child is circumcised when he enters into the covenant of the Lord with his people Israel. In the flesh of Jesus, the Son of God—Who had entered into the covenant with Israel—now also becomes a member of this covenant with, and on behalf of, Israel.


By entering into this covenant relationship as an incarnate Jewish man, the Son of God becomes the man who will be perfectly faithful to the covenant, fulfilling it and establishing a new and everlasting covenant which saves Israel and all humanity. Signifying this salvific mission, the Son of God is given the name of Jesus at his circumcision, which means “savior.”


Christian devotion to the name of Jesus seems to always have existed, though it took different forms in Eastern and Western Christianity in different centuries. In the Roman Catholic Church, devotion to the name of Jesus blossomed in the Middle Ages, in part through the mystical writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux—and especially his commentary on the Song of Songs. This tradition crystallized in the 16th century through the ministrations of St. Bernardine of Siena. A renewed appreciation for the power of the name of Jesus found welcome in the Jesuit order, who frequently invoked His name in their missionary labors, and even in the title of their order.


The ancient Latin Christian monogram, IHS, became linked with devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus during this period. While the origins of the monogram and its signification are obscure, one interpretation of IHS is the Latin phrase Iesus hominum salvator, that is, “Jesus the savior of humans.” From the 16th century onward, the monogram IHS was used to adorn churches, priestly vestments, and especially Eucharistic hosts.


Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus therefore encapsulates many facets of our Catholic Faith: the Incarnation of the Son of God, the union of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ, the multiplicity of persons within the Trinity, Our Lord’s covenant with the Jewish people, and the mission of the Church to preach the knowledge of Jesus Christ to all people that they may be saved.


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