He Knew Them By Name

For generations, Meghan’s family has traveled to Marshall Fields[1] in December to visit Santa and to dine in the famous Walnut Room. Until the pandemic, our family has continued with this tradition of waiting hours to experience the kind of magic only a retail conglomerate can bring. And for the kids, it really was magic. We would slowly move through the labyrinth of animatronics as we waited our turn to see Santa and when the moment finally arrived, you’d hear Santa’s big, belly laugh as he invited the girls in the room, calling each of them by name. For Santa to know their names would seal the deal and the magic would be so intense it would sometimes overwhelm them, and they’d forget what they wanted to ask for despite our hours of waiting and coaching for this moment.

There is something about knowing and calling someone by name that builds an intimacy and connection. Santa knows this as it can transform stranger-danger into a magic moment. I think Santa learned this from God. For we find the comfort and assurance of God knowing our names in Scripture.

“But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cushand Seba in your stead.Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you, I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isaiah 43:1-7 NIV).

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary. In my prayers this week, I’ve named the 27 victims of that shooting and cried over the 593 other persons who have died in 77 mass shootings since.[2] My heart aches for the families whose Christmas magic was violently ended and prematurely changed. It’s been hard for me to see their photos and name the victims[3] but I believe their lives matter and that by speaking their names it somehow defies the darkness that threatens us all.  

In this practice, I lean heavily into the promises of Isaiah. I need to know that their lives -and our lives- matter to God. I need that assurance that God knows us all by name and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. That God is vulnerable like us. That God risks love like us. That God knows firsthand the brutality we inflict upon each other and how we seem so powerless to stop the madness. I remember that even upon the birth of God’s own son, another slaughter of innocents[4] took place and that, though he too was innocent, Jesus was murdered and how it all breaks God’s heart, too.

In this mess of emotions, magic and mourning, I have found some words that bring me hope, comfort, and renew my faith in the light of such senseless violence and feelings of powerlessness. David Bentley Hart concludes his book, The Doors of the Sea, with these words:

“As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

I’ll admit my longing for the days of God’s deliverance from death, sorrow, crying and pain grows deeper and my patience shorter. But I also admit that those longed-for days are here. These blessed days began when Christ came into the world and when Jesus ascended and sent the Holy Spirit upon all flesh, we received our commissioning to transform the world with grace so that there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain. The work of the church remains urgent and vital. We can start by taking the time to learn, say, speak, pray each other’s names. The power of a name can move us from stranger-danger to a magic moment. The power of a name spoken can push back against the darkness. God knows our names – the name of God’s own son – Emmanuel, means God is with us.

This advent season whether we are filled with magic, despair or some messy combination thereof remember God knows our names, comes to be with us and is moving us toward a day where all will be calm and bright. Until then, God gathers us in a community of grace to share the space, comfort each other and to resist the darkness that continually creeps in beside us.

See you soon and holding us all in prayer,

[1] We know it’s Macy’s now and has been for 16 years. Forever Marshall Fields in our hearts.

[2] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/

[3] https://www.businessinsider.com/who-were-the-victims-of-the-sandy-hook-shooting-2017-12

[4] Matthew 2:16-18.