On a recent trip, I had a conversation with a man who learned I was from Vancouver. He had lived there years earlier, and after asking if a particular music shop was still in the city, he told me a story.
His wife was a piano major at the University of British Columbia. When they went piano shopping as newlyweds, the saleswoman led them straight to the entry-level models. "She had us pegged exactly right," the man told me. "We didn't have two nickels to rub together. We were going to have to borrow the money to get the cheapest instrument there."
Everything changed, however, when the name of the prospective buyer's mentor—a world-renowned master teaching at the university—came up in conversation. The saleswoman was panic-stricken. "Not these pianos!" she exclaimed, herding the couple away from the economy section and into a private showroom of gleaming Steinways. "I'm so sorry," she kept repeating, horrified at the thought of the teacher finding out she'd shown one of his students an inferior instrument. Try as they might, they couldn't persuade her to take them back to the pianos they could afford. Once the master's name came up, only the best would do.
"Hallowed be thy name," I said this morning, mumbling my way through the Lord's Prayer. I've prayed that phrase countless times. But today, I find myself thinking about the reverence a flustered piano saleswoman had for a teacher's name, and the prayer begins to change shape.
What does it mean to "hallow" God's name? I was raised to flinch whenever someone uses it as a mindless exclamation or, worse, a curse. I've heard about the extreme care taken in branches of Judaism: Pages containing the name of YHWH are never thoughtlessly discarded but rather buried or ritually burned. When I've prayed the Lord's Prayer, I've tried to cultivate that kind of personal reverence for his name—even while living in a world prone to profane it, and a church apt to make puns with it on T-shirts.
I'm glad I was taught to avoid blasphemy. But I'm beginning to suspect that my understanding of what it means to hallow God's name has barely scratched the surface.
Names are a big deal in the Bible. From Abraham ("Father of Many") to Jacob ("Heel-grasper") to Peter ("Rock"), monikers don't merely identify, they reveal. Moses understood this. So he asked God (whom he knew by the generic deity designation Elohim) for his personal name. "Yahweh," God told him, offering Moses the kind of intimacy that only comes on a first-name basis—and revealing his covenant with his people in the process.
Every name we have for God is a revelation of his character. So making his name holy must have something to do with revealing him here on earth. But a review of the human track record tells us this isn't our specialty.
There is a scene in the 1999 CBS miniseries Jesus that haunts me. Jesus is in agony in Geth-semane, and Satan comes to tempt him one last time. In a devastating move, he shows the Lord a preview of the evils that will be done in his name, and asks if his sacrifice will be worth it.
The scene is not from Scripture, but the scenario it proposes is powerful. In the shadow of the Cross, did Jesus observe all the wrongs—catastrophic and petty—we'd credit to him? Did he see inquisitions and gas chambers, defenses of slavery and "God hates fags" placards? Did he anticipate the way we'd use his name as a political trump card, or speak for him and pronounce his judgments in the wake of tragedies? Did he hear us mutter, when confronted with need, "God helps those who help themselves"? Did he want to shout that he'd said no such thing?
We can only guess at all he endured in the garden, but we know for certain that when one of his friends sliced off a soldier's ear, Jesus put it back on. "You can't hallow my name," the gesture seems to say, "if you're associating it with something I would never do." Thanks be to God, many of his disciples have altered the course of human history with the good done in his name. And yet, 2,000 years later, we still have a propensity to wield our swords—rhetorical and otherwise—on his behalf.
In light of all this, the Lord's Prayer takes on new urgency. None of the six petitions Jesus taught—for God's name, kingdom, will, bread, forgiveness, and deliverance—are things we can obtain on our own. In fact, all the verbs are passive. This means that the first request is not really, "Let us hallow your name." It's more, "Father, do what we can't—make your name holy in all the earth."
Only God can reveal himself to the world. But if we pray as he taught us, our reverence and care for his name will grow. That's when we'll begin to exchange our cheap instruments of self-interest and power for the costly cross of Christ—the only instrument worthy of our Master's name.
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