On T-Shirts and the Name of God

by Noella D'Souza

 

For centuries, theologians have ceaselessly pondered the nature of God and His relation to humanity, but their well-researched theses have overlooked one essential source of human wisdom: the American graphic tee. Two t-shirt designs, in particular, come to mind: the tagline “I am what I am” and the “HELLO: My name is…” name-tag design. Imagine if God came along and decided to create His own trendy graphic tee, combining the two designs into the line, “HELLO: My name is…I AM who AM.” I’m not a prophet, but we all know that sales would be through the roof, like Jesus’ healing of the paralytic at Capernaum in reverse. Jokes aside, I find the name of God a really fascinating perspective for understanding the Christian faith and the human identity.

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Our story begins in the third book of Exodus, when God summons Moses at the Burning Bush. In this commission, God reveals His personal name, “I AM WHO I AM,” further identifying Himself as the “God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3: 14). This self-revelation says two things to me. The name “I am who I am” strikes me as so fundamental: God is Being, Existence itself. The second descriptor defines God’s own identity through His relationship to humanity. This deeply intertwines the Divine identity with the human, so let’s turn to the response.

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When God summons Moses to this revelatory encounter, Moses says, “Here I am,” an iconic reply spoken by Biblical figures, from Abraham and Isaiah to Samuel. Moses’ answer includes part of the name of God itself, “I am.” He could have just said, “Here,” as if answering for himself during roll call in Biblical Heritage class—but the additional “I am” is the essential statement of physical presence.

 

Let’s consider the “I am” for humans a little further. How do we describe ourselves? I am her best friend. I am speechless. I am in love (with BC Dining’s spinach and feta croissants). You get the point, but in many situations, before we can say anything about ourselves, we have to re-encounter the ubiquitous “I am.” Perhaps God is dropping the not-so-subtlest of hints: “Hey, before you even try to articulate something about your identity, recognize that you are first and foremost a child of God. You will always be wearing a ‘Hello, I AM  _____’ shirt in My eyes.”

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This also calls to mind a musical setting of Mary’s Magnificat by David Haas, which begins, “All that I am, sings of the God who brings new life to birth in me.” Mary’s example again reminds us that everything we are begins and ends with God, and that this knowledge is generative. Acknowledging God’s mark within ourselves calls us beyond our earthly names towards the Divine name, towards God as the Father and as Christ in others.

            

So what’s the point? Are we supposed to walk around with our own “Hello my name is...I AM WHO AM” shirts? Well, that’s probably a little sacrilegious. I would think more along the lines of that scene from Toy Story, where Woody looks down at his shoe and sees “Andy” written there. Maybe because it’s written on our hearts, it’s easy to lose sight of God’s name when we think about ourselves and our own names. But the Christian calling is to remember this identity, to live a life worthy of it, and to help the people we encounter look on their feet and remember it, too.

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