A youth ministry team I worked with many years ago performed a skit based the Lord’s Prayer. It began with one of the girls on our team kneeling down to pray. She would make the sign of the cross and then say loudly: Our Father, who art in Heaven…
Suddenly, God would answer (in a booming voice over the P.A. system with lots of reverb): Yes?
She would look around, confused, and reply: Don’t interrupt me. I’m praying.
God would say: But you called me!
Girl: Called you? I didn’t call you. I’m praying. Our Father who art in heaven…
God: There, you did it again.
Girl: Did what?
God: Called me. You said, Our Father, who art in Heaven. Here I am. What’s on your mind?
God would go on to gently explain to her each of the clauses of the Lord’s prayer that she planned to rattle off without a second thought. But this literal response to her calling out to God is at the heart of the Second Commandment, You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. Anytime we speak God’s name we need to remember that it means something, and so to use it without the intention of speaking to Him misses the point of why we can address God at all. Sadly, this means that every time someone yells/curses/speaks in disgust saying “God” or “Jesus,” they are misusing His name. Just as the girl in the skit didn’t consider the prayerful meaning of her words, you could argue that those who swear by God’s name, are in a sense ‘praying,’ because God always answers when we call.
You need to understand here the value of a name: “Christians treat the name of a person reverently, because the name is profoundly connected with that person’s identity and dignity” (YouCat 361). As a parent, I’ve had the privilege of naming my five children. This is not a responsibility my wife and I took lightly, but prayed and discerned precisely because it is so connected to their identity and dignity. Conversely, oppressive regimes often make a point of taking away someone’s name and replacing it with a number. In the story of Les Miserables, police inspector Javert always addresses Jean Valjean by his prisoner number, 24601, rather than by his name. Javert believes that due to his crimes, Valjean has lost the right to a name and, in a sense to his identity and dignity.
If we treat the name of every person with reverence, then it stands to reason that God’s name should be treated with even more respect. Scripture reminds us that it is a great privilege to be able to call on the name of the Lord (see Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21, and Romans 10:13 as a starting point). But one of the points we used to try and teach by performing the “Our Father” skit was that God hears when we call Him. It’s why He has chosen to reveal Himself to us:
“Since God has told us His name, he makes Himself recognizable and grants us access to Him through this name…. the Holy Name, after all, is the key to the Almighty.” -YouCat 359
There are two main implications that come from this commandment not to take God’s name in vain. First, we need to be more conscious of our words. This can be hard when cursing whether it’s with God’s name or not. I struggle the most with swearing when playing competitive sports. Most often, it’s because I’m unable to do what I feel I should be able to do: hit a basket, make a more accurate pass, or beat the boss in a video game (not exactly a competitive sport, but you get the idea.) A priest once told me point blank that this inability to see a game as a game and instead get so carried away shows my own lack of maturity. And he’s right. By this commandment, God is inviting us to ‘grow up’ and discover better ways to express the way in which we feel. Swearing by using God’s name in vain is not only irreverent, both it and swearing in general is a sign that I have some growing up to do.
A second implication is that there are certain things which deserve to be treated with reverence. This means that:
“The Second Commandment is therefore also a commandment that protects ‘holiness’ in general. Places, things, names, and people who have been touched by God are ‘holy.’ Sensitivity to what is holy is called reverence.” -YouCat 359
I have occasionly had the privilege of participating in a Divine Liturgy with our Ukrainian Catholic brothers and sisters. One thing that strikes me most about Ukrainian Catholics is the reverence with which the priest and congregation treat everything. The priests’ vestments, the use of incense, the repetition of the prayers, their music… all of it radiates reverence for God, for His presence, and for all that reminds us of His presence. This is also an expectation in the Latin (Roman) rite. We are also expected to show reverence for the Sacraments, the Word of God, the prayers we pray, the Sacraments, as well as any blessed object.
In the ‘Our Father’ skit, God spends some time explaining to the girl what it means when we say that we hallow God’s name. God explains that if something is hallowed, it is “…honoured, holy, and wonderful.” Because God’s name is holy and wonderful, we are called to honor it. This means that we should not use it mindlessly and we certainly shouldn’t use it as a curse. We should keep in mind that when we call on the name of the Lord, as the girl in the skit did, God hears and answers us (Isaiah 65:24).
-This is part of a series on the Youth Catechism. Mike Landry is Catholic Youth Camp director for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. He is also chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools, serving 10 schools west of Edmonton. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain with their five children.