Knowing Names

This morning I began a bird list for 2013.  I went to a nearby park, listened and watched through the cold fog, and started to tick off the birds I saw: White-throated Sparrow, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Mourning Dove, American Crow, Dark-eyed Junco.  So far I’ve seen twenty species–by the end of the year I hope to have seen over two hundred.

I didn’t always birdwatch and so I didn’t always know the names of the birds I saw.  There were blue birds, red birds, small birds, and big birds.  But now I can’t see a bird without at least wondering what its name is.  With a name I am able to move more deeply into an awareness of the reality around me–its magic and depth.  No longer is there a tree full of birds; now there is a world of variety and possibility.

The same is true of personal names.  A name is an entrance point to getting at the depths of a person.  A crowd in a room is just a gathering of bodies, but as conversations happen and relationships form, at some point the question of a name becomes important.  The more we get to know someone the more specific our names become.

Today is New Years day, but in the Christian calendar it is the Feast of the Holy Name.  This is the day when we remember Christ receiving his name–Jesus.  With this name, we move from a God who is abstract, who cannot be contained by a name that can be spoken, and toward a God whom we can call  by person–Jesus.  A name, a specific name, is an essential feature of the incarnation.  We move from the ideal category to the real and specific.  This is where reality dwells, where love and relationships happen–not in Plato’s heaven of abstract forms, but in the world where we say “there’s a Carolina Chickadee” and “Lord Jesus, have mercy.”

About Ragan Sutterfield

Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and Episcopal seminarian sojourning from his native Arkansas in Alexandria, Virginia. He is the author of Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline and a contributor to the book Sacred Acts: How churches are working to protect the Earth’s climate. Ragan’s articles and essays have appeared in a variety of magazines including Triathlete, The Oxford American, and Books & Culture. He works to live the good life with his wife Emily and daughter Lillian.


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