We continue in this series with our examination of the Lord’s Prayer phrase by phrase, using Matthew’s version of the Prayer. We turn now to the next petition: “Hallowed be Thy Name”. To understand this petition we must first understand the Hebrew significance of a name.
In our culture, a name is simply a verbal tag, a number of syllables by which someone is specifically identified and differentiated from others. For us, a name hardly differs from a number: one may say (as in the Village), “You are Number Six”, or “You are Lawrence” or “You are Barsanuphius”. It hardly matters; the name is simply a label worn so that one can be picked out in a group. It was otherwise in the Old Testament, where a name embodied a person’s essential nature. Thus one might be given a different name if one embraced a different destiny: Abram became Abraham when God called him to the father of a multitude, and Simon bar-Jonah became Kephas (or Peter) when the Lord called him to be His apostle.
God’s Name also embodied His essential nature. When He revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush and told him that He was calling him to bring to Israel the message of impending liberation from Egypt, Moses foresaw that Israel would be sceptical and would ask, “What is His name?” (Exodus 3:13). This was not a request for a verbal identifier; they knew that He was the God of Abraham whom they had been worshipping. They were not asking for His verbal tag, but inquiring after His credentials and whether or not He had what it took to overcome the gods of Egypt and defeat the world’s greatest superpower. In response God replied, “I am who I am”—i.e. His power was untrammelled and His acts were not conditioned by anyone. He could do whatever He pleased—including liberate Israel from Egypt. He was the great I Am. He had not manifested Himself with such power before (Exodus 6:3), but now He would.
God’s Name, therefore, is identical with His power. We see this, for example, in the prokeimenon for Wednesday Vespers. One feature of Hebrew poetry is its parallelism, wherein the poet says something one way and then repeats it another way. Thus Psalm 54:1: “Save me, O God, by Your name, and vindicate me by Your might”. Here it is clear that God’s “name” is synonymous with His “might”. Thus, the Name we are to hallow is God’s manifested reputation for power in the world, His ability to save His people.
And what does it mean to “hallow” something? The word “hallow” is quite archaic, and is scarcely used outside religious circles. Indeed the (possibly apocryphal) story is told of how a little boy heard the adults at church saying the Lord’s Prayer and praying “Hallowed be Thy Name” and didn’t understand what they could possibly mean. He had no clue what the word “hallow” meant, but he knew several children in his class at school by the name of “Harold”. He thought that the adults were saying of God, “Harold be Thy Name” and concluded, not unnaturally, that God’s Name must be “Harold”. He had thought it was actually “Jehovah” or something like that, but felt on the basis of the Lord’s Prayer that it must be “Harold”. I suppose the story illustrates the danger of using archaic language—or perhaps of not enunciating clearly.
The word “hallow” is of course the Greek agiazo, meaning “to make agios, or holy, to sanctify” . In other words, “hallowed be Thy Name” in this petition might be rendered, “may Your Name be sanctified”. So: what does it mean to sanctify God’s Name? One path to understanding it might be to turn it on its head and to ask first what it might mean to profane God’s Name.
In Isaiah 52:5, the prophet accuses Israel of profaning God’s Name by their sins. Israel had defected from their God and worshipped the idols and had ground the face of the poor, in every possible way flouting God’s Law. For this God had abandoned them to their sins and allowed foreign oppressors to prevail over them, sending them into captivity. The nations had concluded from this that their God was a loser, and was too weak to defend His people from the nations who were supported and strengthened by their gods. Yahweh’s power was despised by them, so that His Name was blasphemed among the nations. St. Paul later took up this accusation and levelled it at the Jews of his own day in Romans 2:24, saying that Jewish transgression of the Law resulted in Judaism and the Jewish God being despised among the nations of his time. Thus, one profanes the Name of God through one’s sins, for the sins of religious people inevitably reflect upon the God whom they profess to serve.
In the same way, our transformed life also reflects upon the God who we profess to serve. St. Justin Martyr happily pointed to the transformed life of murderous and aggressive people whose natures had been tamed by Christ: “We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also willingly die confessing Christ” (Apology, chapter 39). In like manner St. Paul encouraged the thief to steal no longer, but to work so as to have something to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28). In this way the world would see that God had so transformed the thief’s heart that instead of taking other people’s things, he was now giving away his own.
The Lord Himself said the same thing about the power of a transformed life: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Our changed lives inevitably reflect upon our God. And of course the greatest way to sanctify God’s Name is to die for Him—when the world sees how the Christians are even prepared to lay down their lives for God, they will ask, “What kind of a God is this that His people will even die for Him?” This is how we sanctify the Name of God: by letting our light shine so before men that they will glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
This is our first and most important task as Christians. We may speak and preach all we like, but all will be in vain if by our lives we do not sanctify God’s Name. It is as Nietzsche said: “I will believe in the Redeemer when His people look a lot more redeemed”. It is a fair challenge. One bumper sticker I saw said, “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven”. Nietzsche would have said this was a cop out, and he would have been right. If the Gospel cannot transform and heal the human heart, it will have no credibility in the world—and nor should it. We are called to be transformed, not just our own sake, but for the sake of the world.
We note finally that this first petition in the Lord’s Prayer has to do with God’s honour and glory, and not our own happiness and fulfillment. It is right that we pray for ourselves, and ask God for our daily bread, our daily forgiveness, and daily deliverance from the time of trial. But more important than our own welfare is God’s glory, and thus we pray first for His Name to be sanctified, not for ourselves.
We all too easily imagine that we are the center of the universe—or at least of our own little universe, and that our happiness trumps everything else. For this happiness and goal we are sometimes prepared to sacrifice almost anything—even fidelity to marriage vows, and unborn children within the womb. We badly need to be knocked off our throne and driven to our knees, where we belong. This petition is a daily reminder that we are not the most important thing in the cosmos, and that our happiness comes second to God’s honour. Ultimately our joy depends upon our recognition that God is the King, and we are His servants. Our name, reputation, and passing pleasure are as nothing compared to Him. It is His Name that we should strive to sanctify.