Several times throughout the weekend, I caught a glimpse of S out of the corner of my eye. He’d set down his fork in the middle of a loud and laughing dinner around him and begin to point his chubby finger at each family member, quietly calling them by name.
From the grin on his face, I could see the delight he took in praticing each aunt’s and uncle’s and cousin’s name, pronouncing and pointing that These were His People. He always interrupted his circuit of naming round the table to point at himself and declare his own name, that He was One of Them. Satisfied with his work, he would smile and pick up his fork to begin eating again.
Sometimes one of my siblings or parents would notice S’s work of naming, and our eyes would meet in happy recognition. Other times no one else saw his careful circuit round the table. But each time I watched him, I thought of how yet another baby step was taking shape before my very eyes – the dawn of understanding what it meant to have a name and to belong to a family.
Today we say goodbye to the last of the family after a wonderful reunion. Our numbers at the dinner table tonight will be much smaller: Mama, Babbo, S. But there are two new names that I hold secret and sacred in the back of my mind for a few more weeks. A girl’s name and a boy’s name – one of which will soon become familiar in the mouths and hearts of that circle round the family table. Families change with the names we add.
One can’t help but muse during such a reunion about the people from whom we come – the people who help shape who we are and who we will continue to become. For better or for worse, these are Our People. And part of the beauty of family is that we cannot choose them. Their loveable quirks, their maddenning faults are all realities we have to live with (and truths often not far from our own, if we can be honest). But they teach us about ourselves and they keep us connected to other worlds and worries and wonders beyond our own.
A few weeks ago, one of the theologians at the meeting on vocation I helped to host brought up the issue of names and belonging. We were lamenting the fact that most people in parishes today are disconnected from each other: they know next to nothing about the lives or the work of their fellow congregants in the pews. Our efforts to help people begin reflecting on God’s call in their lives often have to begin with the simple work of getting people to learn about each other, to share something of their own story in order to recognize their own place in God’s story, in the community’s story, in the church’s story.
Someone brought up the idea of nametags for Sunday worship: an equalizing solution that affirms the welcome of all who enter into God’s house, but removes the anonymity that often plagues our churches (as well as the embarassment of admitting we often don’t know the names of the familiar faces we greet on Sunday mornings). Nametags are an imperfect, even awkward solution to a bigger problem, but they can be a baby step, especially in the giant congregations that are becoming more and more a reality in Catholic parishes, for example.
Regardless of the solutions, however, the bigger issue that concerns me is how we are known in our communities of faith. Are we called by name? Can we find our place there? Do we feel that someone takes delight in our presence, like S’s gentle pointing and naming that drew all the family around him into a circle where he knew he belonged?
Every time I reach the front of the communion line and find a familiar face – a friend or priest or deacon who holds up the host and says, “L, the Body of Christ” – I feel differently about the Eucharist I receive. I know I shouldn’t, that it is the same loving and familiar Christ I receive, both in the bread and in the face of the human being who offers Christ to me. But I do. I feel a closer connection with the community and with the God we celebrate together. I feel that I am known and that I can know more deeply because I have been called by name.
Perhaps nametags can help. But perhaps there is a deeper call here for us to go deeper in our efforts to build relationships throughout our large congregations and communities. Anonymity is too easy, especially in the Internet age. We need to be known for the imperfect, quirky, maddening, loving people we are.
That’s worth pausing from our meals – familial or Eucharistic – to consider.