Reverence and the Breathing the Name of God
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God,
for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Since the most ancient times in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, the people of faith have invoked “Yahweh” as the name of God. Genesis 4:26 records that the earliest generations of humanity began to “invoke the name of the Lord.” Yahweh is often translated “the LORD” in ancient scripture or is referred to with substitutions such as Adonai (“my LORD”) or Shema (“the name”). Since God’s name was not to be pronounced, except on holy days by the high priest, we are not entirely certain of the pronunciation, but the ancient church fathers suggested “Yahweh” (pronounced ‘yah-way’).
Imagine the reverence of the ancients who refrained from pronouncing the name of God! More than the second commandment instructions that we are not to take the name of the Lord our God “in vain,” to completely refrain from speaking God’s name out of reverence before the sacred presence, the holy one of Israel, is foreign to us in our casual use of even sacred language. We often interpret the second commandment as a prohibition of swearing, of using God’s name to condemn or curse. But the ancients knew that God’s name was too holy to be used in any casual or trivial way, for in God’s name we have our being. To even pronounce God’s name would have been a false presumption of understanding the mystery of God.
Hebrew texts used only consonants, and not vowels, when invoking God’s name as the so-called Tetragrammaton YHWH (יהוה), an unpronounceable breath of a name. Regarding the meaning of YHWH, in the book of Exodus, when Moses encountered God at the burning bush, it seemed that God revealed God’s name as an expression of ‘being.’
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, ” I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘ I AM has sent me to you.'”
The revelation to Moses implies that God is the one who exists and can never cease to exist. YHWH is “I AM.” We are the creatures of “I AM” the Creator.
I read an interesting reflection by Father Richard Rohr last week on the ‘Name of God.’ He cited a rabbi who taught him that God’s name, YHWH, was not pronounceable, but only breathable: “YH on the captured in-breath, and WH on the offered out-breath.” Rohr then offered the following reflection and exercise on what he called “The YHWH Prayer.”
We come from a very ancient, human-based, natural, biological, universally experienced understanding of God. God’s eternal mystery cannot be captured or controlled, but only received and shared as freely as the breath itself—the thing we have done since the moment we were born and will one day cease to do in this body. God is as available and accessible as our breath itself. Jesus breathes the Spirit into us as the very air of life (see John 20:22)! Our job is simply to both receive and give this life-breath. We cannot only inhale, and we cannot only exhale. We must breathe in and out, accept and let go.
Take several minutes to pause and breathe mindfully, surrendering to the mystery of wordless air, the sustainer of life. Part your lips; relax your jaw and tongue. Hear the air flow in and out of your body:
Let your breathing in and out, for the rest of your life, be your prayer to—and from—such a living and utterly shared God. You will not need to prove it to anybody else, nor can you. Just keep breathing with full consciousness and without resistance, and you will know what you need to know. 1
Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22) Breath and Spirit are intertwined in the language of scripture, and in Rohr’s approach to the mystery of our encounter with God. “God is available and accessible as our breath itself . . .”
A few thoughts, and a YHWH Prayer, on this quiet winter Monday . . .
Blessings to you, O people of Trinity, as you journey in prayer, meditation, and contemplation. May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Robert Linstrom