The Name Game

I’ve been interested in names since I first saw Pulp Fiction in the theater. There’s a scene where Bruce Willis’s character, Butch, is asked by a woman what his name means. His reply: “I’m an American, honey, our names don’t mean shit.” Being familiar with many instances (especially in the Bible) in which names were given intentionally, purposefully, and meaningfully, Butch’s comment has always seemed unfortunate and regrettable to me (especially because there seems to be some truth to it).

When we joined the Orthodox Church, I was delighted to learn that choosing a name was essentially a prayer. We give the child a saint’s name, and in doing so, we are asking that person to pray for our child in a special way. However, we are also asking God to guide our child so that they become united to Christ is ways similar to their namesake. There is, of course, an aesthetic motivation as well. This is where Kristen has often held me in check, keeping me from getting too weird or obscure. For all of these reasons, we’ve taken the process of naming very seriously.

Given the arrival and naming of Titus Ulysses on June 2nd, I thought that perhaps a few folks would be interested to hear about why we’ve chosen the names we’ve chosen for our boys.

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Charles Maximus

Charlie was named for my dad’s dad, Charles Gus Lee Coatney, and for Maximus the Confessor, a seventh century Greek saint.

At 94, my Paw-Paw is my last living grandparent. I spent a lot of my childhood with him and my Maw-Maw, and my introduction to Jesus and to the Bible are essentially due to the two of them.

Charles is the French form of the German name Karl, which means “man” or “free man.”

I could do a whole blog post (or 10) about Maximus the Confessor. He’s most well known for his defense of dyothelitism – the existence of both a divine and human will in the person of Jesus. This articulation allowed for the resolution of a major dispute in church history at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 681. Prior to this council, most of the leadership in the Church argued that Christ had only a divine will. When Maximus spoke out against them, the Emperor and Patriarch had his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off. This earned him the title “Confessor,” one who holds to the truth in the face of torture. Maximus died in exile in 662, roughly 20 years before he was to be vindicated at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

Maximus is the Latin term for “greatest.” I’ve had more than one Latin scholar jokingly point out that while Charlemagne (Charles Magnus) means “Charles the Great,” or even “great man,” Charles Maximus is “Charles the Greatest,” or “the greatest man.”

Judah Severus

Judah was named for Judah Maccabee; his middle name is a little more complicated, but there are several Severuses (Severii?) that led us to choose it.

Judah Maccabee was one of the sons of Mattathias the Hasmonean who led the revolt in 167 BC against the (Greek) Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Briefly, the kingdom of Israel split in 931 BC after the death of Solomon, and the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC. The land of Israel and Judah then fell to the Medes and Persians before Alexandar the Great swept through in 332 BC, initiating the Hellinization (aka “Greekification”) of the Middle East. The Jews were never at peace with this arrangement, and were a thorn in their Greek rulers’ side. Antiochus, frustrated with the Jews, pushed back too hard, leading to the revolt led by Mattathius and his sons. Judah was the very successful military leader of the rebellion, earning the name Maccabee (“Hammer”) for his military prowess. He is responsible for the rededication of the Temple and the institution of Hanukkah. He was a man of action, and little of his speech is recorded, but in one speech he gave before a battle he is quoted as stating, “They trust in arms and acts of valor, but we trust in the Lord our God.” He ultimately died in battle in 160 BC.

Judah comes from a Hebrew word for “praise.” Because Judah was the patriarch from whom David’s line of kings would come, it was an extremely popular Hebrew/Jewish name. The name Judas comes from the Greek form of Judah; this name became understandably unpopular after the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. When the New Testament was translated into English, translators shortened the name to Jude for the biblical letter (the one right before Revelation), to distinguish it from the unpopular Judas. We decided to stick with the Hebrew form.

We will readily acknowledge that the name Severus came to our attention by way of Severus Snape. As I began to learn more about ancient Christian history, I continued to encounter names that I’d known previously from the Harry Potter books; names like Hermione, Nymphadora, and Severus. There are several saints named Severus in the Orthodox Church. The most well known Severus in church history, though, is Severus of Antioch, who is a saint in the Oriental Orthodox Churches, but is considered a heretic by the Eastern Orthodox Church. He argued against the wording of the two natures (divine and human) of Christ. His writings, however, have been very useful as the Oriental and Eastern churches have sought to reconcile their Christology over the last 50 or so years. Ultimately, Judah is baptized as Judah Maccabee, but is also named Severus as a nod to the various saints given this name as well as to the hope of reconciliation between the Oriental and Eastern churches.

Severus is a Latin term meaning “severe.” To date, Judah Severus lived up to his more exactly than any of the other boys.

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Easton Elias

Easton was given his first name by his biological parents; we chose Elias as his middle/baptized name after the prophet Elijah.

Easton is an Old English name meaning “east-facing settlement.” We never questioned changing Easton’s first name, since he was three when he was placed with us and nearly four by the time he was legally adopted. In the Orthodox Church, we traditionally face the east when we pray. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, the most well known being based on Matthew 24:27, “For as the lightening comes from the east, and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Saint Basil the Great wrote in the fourth century that this was an ancient practice even at that time.  We therefore take Easton as our prayer that he will grow to be a man of prayer as well.

After Moses, Elias/Elijah is arguably the most celebrated man of God in the Old Testament. He lived in Israel the ninth century BC, and was called the “troubler of Israel” by the King, Ahab, against whom he spoke and acted out against regularly (along with Ahab’s wife, Jezebel). His stories are contained primarily in the first book of Kings (III Kingdoms in the Greek OT). We chose him for his courage, and for his ability to speak truth to power. If you’ve never read the story of his challenge to the priests of Baal, I highly you take a few minutes and read 1 Kings 18:20-40 right now.

Elijah comes from the Hebrew term “My God is the LORD (YHWH).” Elias comes from the Greek form of Elijah.

Titus Ulysses

Titus was named for the recipient of Paul’s pastoral letter, and for the hero of Homer’s Odyssey.

Church tradition tells us that Titus was born on Crete, but traveled to Judea upon hearing that a great prophet (Jesus) was teaching and performing miracles. He encountered Christ, witnessed his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, and was present at Pentecost. He was later baptized by the apostle Paul and was one of his closest disciples. He traveled frequently with and for Paul, and was eventually made bishop of Crete. He died peacefully at the age of 97.

The name Ulysses comes from the Latin form of Odysseus. The hero of Homer’s Odyssey is a total boss, and overcomes adversity against all odds. Ulysses is the middle name of Park and Recreation’s Ron Swanson, and Scrubs’ Dr. Perry Cox. What really got us thinking about the name, though, is the eponymous song by Josh Garrels:

The song got me thinking about Ulysses as a type of Christ, overcoming all adversity to win his bride back from her wicked and unworthy suitors. At the end he sings,

So tie me to the mast of this old ship
And point me home.
Before I lose the one I love,
Before my chance is gone.
I want to hold her in my arms.

In the Odyssey, Ulysses ties himself to the mast of his ship as it passes by the sirens, whose song draws sailors to their doom. His soldiers had plugged their ears as the shipped passed, but someone needed to be able to tell them when the sirens’ song had ended. I’d never thought Christologically about the story of Ulysses being tied to the mast of the ship before I heard this song, but the idea of tying ourselves to the cross to prevent being drawn to our doom by temptation comes across powerfully when I hear it.

There is a saint Ulyssses/Odysseus the New Martyr, but I haven’t been able to learn anything about him, other than that he exists.

There’s some serious irony with the name Titus Ulysses, because both names have unclear meanings. We simply don’t know what either name means, and given the importance of names having meaning, this seemed problematic at first. However, we’ve come to a point in our understanding of naming that we so closely connect the name with the person for whom the child is being named, that the meaning is found in the person. Titus means disciple of God; Ulysses means one who overcomes adversity; who ties himself to the mast in order to overcome temptation.