There’s a page from a church website making the usual rounds right now titled about Orthodox practices with a newborn. As somebody who is going through those steps right now and having to explain various things (what’s the difference between churching and baptism? Why do you have to do the churching? What’s the whole naming thing when you’re going to do a christening? etc.), I think it’s pretty good. We wound up churching Theodore after, well, ten days, I suppose — it was sort of curious how it worked out, since our priest came over to do the naming on a Tuesday, and told us, “Well, there’s no hard and fast reason to do 40 days if it’s not practical to do 40 days, but it’s theoretically supposed to be the first real trip outside of the house for the mother and child.” Megan looked sheepish and said, Um, I went to Target yesterday. The priest gave a dismissive wave and said, not a big deal. Let’s just do the churching on Thursday.
Well, the reason we could do the churching on a Thursday was because it was the same day that Fr. Peter E. Gillquist’s body was lying in the center of the church, and we were serving a Divine Liturgy before he was to be taken up to Holy Trinity in Indianapolis for the funeral services proper. (There were around 32 clergy at the altar for his funeral. There’s no freaking way All Saints could have done that.) So, Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist carried Theodore Harvey Barrett II down the aisle, past the body of his own father, Fr. Peter E. Gillquist, into the altar. There was something weirdly normal-seeming about the whole thing — in the midst of death, we are in life — and there were a number of people who said to me that it wasn’t every day that the whole circle of life seemed to get represented like that.
Anyway. Something that hit me about the Orthodox newborn practices piece was this bit about names:
Orthodox Christian naming practices vary. A child is sometimes named after the saint commemorated on the day of birth, sometimes in honour of some other saint or biblical figure. Sometimes, however, the child receives the name of a virtue, an ancestor, or some other name entirely (see for example, early saints who were named after pagan philosophers like Plato). There are no “hard and fast” rules (as there might have been in ancient Judaism), except that Christian parents should name their child in a thoughtful and prayerful manner, not whimsically, idly, or merely according to some prevailing fashion. Our names embody our identities and point to our vocation. When we name our children, we should do so as ones who are identifying them as God’s heirs and dedicating them to His service.
A philosopher (and by a “philosopher” I mean Bruce Willis speaking Roger Avary’s words) once said, “I’m American, honey. Our names don’t mean shit.” Well, that’s not quite right. My name has a meaning; “Richard” means “king” (it’s cognate with rex, Reichert, etc. and it’s the semantic equivalent of the Greek name Βασίλης), “Raymond” means “protector”, and then “Barrett” can mean “strong man”, “hatmaker”, or something like “con man”, depending on what part of Europe your family is from. My family appears to be from the part of Europe where it means “con man” (evidently the only remaining reflex of this meaning in Modern English is the legal term “barratry”, which itself seems to mean something akin to “ambulance chasing”); of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m the strong king of con men (…or does it…?). No, what it means is that my father, Richard Ellis Barrett, wanted me to have his name but didn’t want me to be a junior. My middle name comes from my maternal grandfather, Raymond Myrick, whom I never got to meet.
Theodore is named for his great-great-great-grandfather, about whom I’ve written a decent amount. Theodore means “gift of God” (Theo- “God” doros “gift”, with the appropriate inflected Greek masculine ending), and is apparently semantically equivalent to the Hebrew form of “Matthew”. His namesake was a general (if perhaps not necessarily a great or even a good one, although this much is not entirely clear to me), so it was a no-brainer to us that Theodore the General should be his patron saint. But wait — “Harvey” apparently meant “battle worthy” in Breton. So he’s the battle worthy general who’s a gift from God. Of course, there’s still the whole problem of being a con man — but anyway.
Of course, the point isn’t that our firstborn is going to be a battle-worthy general of an army of con men who all think they’re God’s gift. (Although he might be, I suppose.) The point is that, “Harvey” and “II” and all, he has the best name we could give him, with the best link to his family’s legacy that we could possibly provide, however tenuous of a connection it may be and however forgotten his namesake may have been. The argument could be made that it’s constructed and contrived and trying to revive a memory that had already apparently passed away within two generations, but one doesn’t rebuild bridges by throwing up one’s hands and saying, “I guess we can’t get there from here.”
Perhaps it’s a lot of weight to place on a little boy’s name, but at the same time, there’s no question at the very least that he’s a gift from God. Besides, Theodore has gained 23 ounces and grown an inch since being discharged from the hospital, and he was eight pounds to begin with. I think he’ll manage.