A parishioner once asked me why I frequently nod my head during a liturgy. For a second or two, I didn’t know what she meant, but then I realized she was referring to a slight bow any time the name of Jesus was mentioned.
This is a gesture that was engrained in me during religious education in the 1940s and 1950s. It was so engrained, in fact, that I am only sometimes conscious that I am doing it.
Perhaps because it was presented to me in this context, I have always associated that gesture with St. Paul’s admonition to the Christian community in Philippi that God had bestowed on Jesus “the name that is above every name” and that, at the mention of that name, “every knee should bend, of those on earth and under the earth….”
I was thinking about this recently, prompted by the Diane Keaton movie Pom in which, before I fell asleep, I heard—at least twice—characters casually respond to some situation by blurting, “Jesus Christ!” I’m old enough to remember when that would not occur in a movie or television show; now, it is commonplace and, thanks to cable channels and streaming, that includes television.
I also remember the often-told story in our family that my grandmother went to see Gone with the Wind in 1939 and, because she heard the word “damn” twice in that film, never went to a movie again. In fact, there was a kerfuffle in the movie industry over the use of that word. The censors objected to it, but the movie code was amended before Gone with the Wind was released. “Damn” was allowed because it had been used in the original work—Margaret Mitchell’s novel.
From our point of view in 2023, banning the word “damn” might seem like overkill. In fact, banning words at all—whether in movies, television, or song lyrics—is no longer in vogue.
The name of Jesus and “damn,” however, are in different categories. In a perfect world, movie makers would recognize that the Holy Name is just that, “holy,” to billions of Christians who regard Jesus as divine and their Savior. In a perfect world, something—let’s say charity, respect, cultural civility, good manners—would mitigate against the use of that name, in entertainment media, as a curse.
However, not only do we not live in a perfect world, but we live in a world that in some ways is increasingly vulgar and indifferent to, when not antagonistic toward, religious ideas. Figures such as Jesus are not only disrespected in many quarters, but they are often ridiculed. So, it would be idle for us to expect more sensitivity from producers or script writers.
We also live in a world in which the profane use of Jesus’ name in everyday speech has been commonplace for many years, which is why it found its way into movie scripts in the first place. In that environment, our best response is to continue being respectful of the Holy Name ourselves and avoid entertainment properties that routinely profane that name.
With regard to others, if they are close to us and especially if they are young, we can gently call their attention to what might have become a habit rather than deliberate blasphemy. And, being Christians and therefore confident in God’s grace, we can pray for those who abuse the Holy Name and for the day when the world be renewed and, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Image: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin transcriptions of the name Jesus.
Charles Paolino is managing editor at RENEW International and a retired permanent deacon of the Diocese of Metuchen. This post was first published in The Catholic Spirit, the Metuchen diocesan newspaper.