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The Name of Jesus

John Adams, one of the great patriots of the American Revolution and one of the architects of our government, led a complex religious life.
He was a practicing Protestant Christian, born a Congregationalist, but his religious views evolved over time until, at last, he became a Unitarian, meaning that he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, although he did regard Jesus as the Savior.
Adams, the first vice-president and second president of the United States, was a regular churchgoer and an advocate of public worship. In the course of his career, he even attended Catholic Masses in far-flung places such as Philadelphia, Brussels, and Corunna, Spain, although he was generally critical of the Catholic Church.
His accounts of his experiences at Mass, preserved in his letters to his redoubtable wife, Abigail, sent a mixed message.
Adams seemed attracted to some of the external aspects of Catholic worship—for example, the vestments and tapestries and the music.
On one occasion, he described the homily as a “good, short, moral Essay upon the Duty of Parents to their Children, founded in justice and Charity, to take care of their Interests temporal and spiritual.”
However, he was repulsed by much of the ritual and personal piety—Latin prayer, rosaries, genuflections—he witnessed in Catholic Churches.
Ever the smart aleck, he summed up his observations in one church by writing, “Here is everything which can lay hold of the eye, ear, and imagination. Everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and the ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”
What caught my attention in particular in one of Adams’ letters was his description of Catholic worshipers “bowing to the name of Jesus wherever they hear it.”
This is a practice that was instilled in me when I was a child, about 130 years after Adams had passed from the scene.
My contemporaries and I were taught that the name of Jesus was holy and that we were to slightly incline our heads when we pronounced it or heard it. That practice was so deeply ingrained in me that I still do it, almost as a reflex.
This little devotion is not the result of being simple and ignorant. It is the result always being conscious of who Jesus is—the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God among us.
This devotion that seemed superstitious to Adams and that might seem quaint now, strikes me as more appropriate than ever, considering how casually the name and image of Jesus is used in our culture.
The Jewish people famously consider the name of God too holy to speak or write; that is a healthy attitude for people who value their covenant relationship with the Father who has made them his own.
We Christians have a new covenant relationship with God that is founded on our belief that Jesus is who he says he is.
And if Jesus is who he says he is, then, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This post was initially published in The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. Charles Paolino is a permanent deacon of that diocese.

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