“…Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king…”
On the Sunday before Nativity in the Orthodox Church we read St. Matthew’s account of the genealogy of Jesus. Beginning with Abraham the lineage is recounted… as my dad used to muse, its one of the ‘begots’ part of the Bible. Lots of begets and begots. Lots of names. Its a Sunday that priests who have deacons are grateful to let the deacon read – a marathon of hard to pronounce names. But we read them, every year, and all lightheartedness aside, the Orthodox Church actually takes the reading of names – lots of names – all the names – very seriously.
I recently updated the list of names – called the diptychs – for our local parish. The diptychs contain all the names of all those living and departed we’ve ever prayed for. These names are read as part of the proskemedia – the service of preparation done by the clergy before Divine Liturgy. Names are read while small pieces of bread are placed under the pieces signifying Mary and the ranks of Saints which surround the center “Lamb” which during Liturgy will be consecrated as the Body of Christ.
At the seminary I attended, which was connected to a monastery, the list of names that had accumulated over the years was vast. Multiple stacks of lists of names would be brought to the table of Oblation during preparation to be read – and it was only a portion of the total, which would be rotated during the week. However, on Memorial Saturdays as many priests as could would take stacks of names, often at the Vigil and read throughout the service covering all of the names of departed ever remembered over the near century of prayer.
I am truly grateful for the importance of names in the Orthodox Tradition. It is a powerful reminder of the absolute worth, value, and sacredness of every single life. On the list of the genealogy there are those whose names we recognize immediately – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David Solomon and those whose lives we know almost nothing about – Ram, Achim, Zadok, Matthan. But their names are listed together as part of this shared salvation story – and their lives were equally valuable and sacred in the eyes of God.
On our diptych list we have departed Patriarchs of the Church and children whose lives ended before birth – some who are only known as ‘unborn child’. Again all the names given and remembered – lives equally valuable and sacred in the eyes of God. And even those whose names are not known are mentioned for they are known and named by God.
This practice in the Church helps us in many ways. It can protect us from thinking of our lives as isolated, separate, either more important or less important than others who came before us. If we struggle with pride and vainglory, meditating on the list of those who came before us can remind us that not only can we do nothing without God, but that we have relied upon the lives of those before us. It can also remind us of our own mortality – in a good way – that no matter what we might strive to achieve in this life, to ‘make a name for ourself’ – our true place, our true value and worth is to be remembered among all of the people of God – who are not valued by their wealth or status or influence, for those pass away, but by the fact they were known – named – created by God.
If we struggle with despair, of seeing life as meaningless, random, or that we have not achieved or reached what we wanted – if we feel we are unwanted, insignificant, we can remember that God sees us and remembers us – not as just a random name on a list, not just as a number, but as an unrepeatable part of the connected life he has created and blessed upon this earth.
The practice of remembering names also helps protect us from the spiritual sickness of seeing people only as statistics, numbers, ranked for various reasons. Of course statistics and data have an appropriate and beneficial place but when persons simply become numbers in our minds and our hearts we end up affirming the quote attributed to Joseph Stalin – ‘if one man dies of hunger that is a tragedy, if a million die that is a statistic’.
I’ve thought about that in the context of our current pandemic. How easy it becomes, if it has not affected one’s own circle, one’s own household to either explain away, deny, or simply see the numbers we are seeing – 3,000 a day, 1.7 million worldwide, over 300,000 in the US dead in just nine months – as statistics. But the remembrance of names in the Orthodox Church calls us to remember that every number is really a list of names – names of persons with lives unrepeatable, valued, sacred in the eyes of God. When we start to entertain or accept ideas like ‘it is just how it is’, or worse, ‘many who die are elderly or sick already’ ‘we just need to let a certain amount of people die’ then we are missing the mark we are called to – which is to strive to see others as God does.
Of course we do this (the denial, shutting down or cold reasoning) because in truth the loss is too much to bear. The weight of all the life lost is something only God can bear within Himself true. He has by nature unlimited love for every person but we as humans are limited. So this practice of remembering names, as much as we can bear, is an invitation to a taste of eternity, a taste of the life God experiences by nature we may participate in by grace. This remembrance of names helps expand our hearts to take in more names, more compassion.
When we reach our limit for compassion, for names, which we will, we step back and trust God to fill what is lacking in us. St. Sophrony of Essex once said “Stare into the abyss, and when you can bear it no more have a cup of tea.” Notice the staring into the abyss – which can be understood among other things as the multitude of names, of lives, of needs – is not negotiable. The Christian is called to do so, to not become cold to the names, the needs – and the meaning of all those names. But our limit is acknowledged. When it becomes too much – pray God have mercy – on all those I have remembered, all of those I have forgotten out of a multitude of names or my own weakness, and all of those known only to Him.