Hallowed Be Thy Name


Whenever we pray the Lord's Prayer, we acknowledge God's name as "hallowed" — that is, as holy or sanctified. But what do we mean by this? Do we mean what Jesus meant?

Most people associate the word "holy" with things that are transcendent — "wholly other," in the defining phrase of the 20th-century scholar Rudolf Otto. The holy is something entirely different from what we experience in ordinary life. "Holy, holy, holy" is what even the angels cry in the presence of a power and a mystery that inspires fear and awe (cf. Is. 6:2-3; Rev. 4:8).

Some scholars suggest that when biblical authors invoke "the name of the Lord," rather than the person of the Lord, they are consciously avoiding any language that might suggest intimacy. They point out that the Psalmist says, "Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth," rather than just, "Our help is in the Lord" (Ps. 124:8). Here, they believe that David is verbally distancing himself from a transcendent God.

By itself, that idea is half true. God is transcendent, powerful, mysterious, and fearsome. Our God is an awesome God. When we speak of His name as "hallowed," however, we are doing much more than expressing awe or stating a supernatural fact. This is not the devotional counterpart to a scientist's evocation of "billions and billions" of light-years.

For Jesus' idea of holiness was precisely the opposite of Rudolf Otto's. The scholar sees holiness measured in the awe or the fear felt by a believer. Jesus, however, saw holiness as something belonging to God from all eternity, before creation, and so before there was even a single angel or human being to be awestruck by the Almighty.

It's not that Jesus considered God to be anything less than mysterious or powerful, but God's mystery and power were not what made Him holy. "Holy" is His name — that is, His essential identity, independent of whether we exist in order to sense its wonder.

Moreover, what made Him holy was not intended to distance Him from us so much as it was to draw us near to Him in intimacy.

Blessing or Curse?

The Hebrew word for holiness is kiddushin, which also means "marriage." When something is holy, it is consecrated, set apart from everything else — in that sense, it is transcendent. Yet it is set apart not for isolation, but for a personal and interpersonal purpose; not for distance, but for intimacy.

In the ancient world, this consecration was achieved by means of a covenant. More than a contract or treaty, a covenant created a family bond between persons or between nations. A wedding took the form of a covenant oath; so did the adoption of a child. These new family relationships brought with them certain privileges and duties. The parties of a covenant invoked God's name as they swore to fulfill their responsibilities. Should they fail, they accepted the most dire penalties, because they had placed themselves under God's judgment. By entering a covenant relationship, they were, in effect, calling down a blessing or a curse (cf. Dt. 11:26). If they were faithful, they would receive God's blessing. If they were unfaithful, they drew down their own curse.

God's name itself served as an oath. To invoke His name was to call upon Him and place oneself under His judgment. The name of God is the power behind the covenant.

The name of God, then, is His own covenant identity, His personal identity. It's what proves our personal relationship with Him. When we call upon that name — Our Father! — God responds as a Father, and we receive His help. We also bring on His judgment, but that judgment is a blessing to those who avail themselves of His help.

When Jesus teaches us to pray, "Hallowed be Thy name," He shows us that the name of God is consecrated, it is holy. God's name is not merely transcendent and mysterious; it is intimate and personal and interpersonal. It is the basis for the covenant.

The Claim to Name

This is an astounding fact — even more astounding when we consider God as awesome and transcendent. He is all these things, and yet He is ours. He is our Father!

Consider the following passage from Exodus, when God is establishing the terms of His covenant with Israel: "Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine" (Ex. 19:5). That seems a paradoxical claim. God first says that Israel is His possession; then He goes on to say that all the world is His. What, then, makes Israel so different?

God was, however, expressing a special relationship with Israel, and He did so by using the word segullah, which denoted something set apart, reserved for the use of a king. A king, after all, legally owns all the real estate in his kingdom, but the palace is set apart for his private use. He owns all the jewels in the realm, but the crown jewels are his special possession.

We recognize, then, that we are God's special possession, and God is ours. We are His children and not just His creatures. All creatures possess God as their beginning and end, but we possess Him as children of the King who live in the palace and are heirs to the throne.

God set His name apart — segullah — as the possession of the King of heaven, and those who are, by covenant, the children of the King. In possessing God, we recognize that His name is holy, consecrated, set apart for intimate conversation within the Family of God.

The Virgin Mary said: "Holy is his name" (Lk. 1:49). He is not holy merely in relation to human beings who hold Him in awe. Holy is His name from all eternity, for we invoke Him with the proper name "Holy Spirit." As God's family on earth, we share in His holiness because we are called by His name, children of His covenant, which we invoke whenever we say "Our Father."

This is why we must never, in the words of the commandment, "take the name of the Lord" in vain. When we call upon the name of the Lord, we are reminding God of the special relationship He has with us. We do this not for His sake, but for our own. He, after all, does not forget, though we do repeatedly.

When we call upon God's holy name, we must be prepared to approach Him as "Our Father." That means we must place ourselves under judgment, calling down a great blessing or a great curse. For a father asks more from his children than a judge asks from a defendant, a teacher from a pupil, or a boss from an employee.

When we speak of the name of the Lord, we're not getting less of God or putting a greater distance between Him and ourselves. The Lord has revealed His name so that we might call upon His power and draw closer to Him in communion. That's the most awesome mystery we'll ever know.




Scott Hahn. "Hallowed Be Thy Name." Lay Witness (May/June 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Scott Hahn is Professor of Theology and Scripture at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the founder and director of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He is the author of many books, including Lord Have Mercy, Letter and Spirit, Understanding the Scriptures, Swear to God, Scripture Matters, Understanding Our Father, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity, Hail Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God, The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism, and co-editor of Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God. Dr. Hahn has also written numerous articles in lay and academic publications.

Scott Hahn received his Bachelor of Arts degree with a triple-major in Theology, Philosophy and Economics from Grove City College, Pennsylvania, in 1979, his Masters of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1982, and his Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from Marquette University in 1995. Scott has ten years of youth and pastoral ministry experience in Protestant congregations (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas and Virginia) and is a former Professor of Theology at Chesapeake Theological Seminary. He was ordained in 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia. He entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 1986.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness

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