Unfolding the Map
What's in a name? What's in my name? In this post, I'm going to be a little self-indulgent and reflect on the meaning of the name Michael. It seems that if names are any indication of what we are supposed to represent, both St. Michaels and I have a lot to live up to. To see where St. Michaels is located, the map will be your guide. At right is the state flower of Maryland, the Black-Eyed Susan. Photo by Lorax, found at Wikimedia Commons, and used under the GNU Free Documentation License.
"On the way was St. Michaels, 'the town that fooled the British' by inventing the blackout. During the War of 1812, word reached the citizens that a night bombardment was imminent. Residents doused all lights except candles in second-story windows and lanterns they hung in treetops. British gunners misread the lights, miscalculated trajectories, and overshot the town. The trick preserved numerous colonial buildings, including one home where a stray cannonball fell through the roof and bounced down the stairway past the startled lady of the house."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 15
St. Michaels, Maryland
The blackout story is interesting, but I want to focus on the name of St. Michaels, Maryland. Part of the reason is personal. My name is Michael. But part of the reason is a curiosity of mine. Michael has been one of the most enduring popular names for boys. But for the life of me, I don't understand why.
Of course, there is the religious connection. A long time ago, when I first discovered that names could mean something (before that, I thought Michael was just Michael), I discovered that Michael is a Hebrew name, and not only that, but the conjoining of two Hebrew words: micha and el. Micha means "in the likeness of" or "like" and el means God. So in my first understandings of my name, I was, mistakenly, pleased to note that my name meant "he who is like God!" I was able to lord it over my lesser-monickered friends until looking again, I was puzzled to find that it was actually a question: "Who is like God?" I didn't understand it at the time. My friends never bought my argument that I was like God anyway.
The question only makes sense when you attach the name Michael to the most important entity associated with it, the archangel Michael, the most important angel in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Along with two other archangels, Gabriel and Raphael, Michael is a major figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Judaism, Michael is the protector of Israel and identified as a "prince of the first rank" of angels. He also identifies himself as a commander in the army of the Lord. In the Christian tradition, particularly the Book of Revelation, Michael defeats Satan in heaven and as a result, Satan is thrown down to earth. Michael is also identified as the angel that will herald the second coming of Christ. He is considered the patron saint of healing and the prince of the Seraphim. He is seen to have four main offices: to fight Satan, to rescue souls at the hour of death, to be the champion of God's people, and to bring souls to judgment. In some variants of Christianity, like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists, Michael is practically synonymous with Jesus Christ, and the Mormons believe that Michael is Adam in his heavenly form. Michael is also mentioned in the Koran as Mikail, one of the archangels along with Jibreel (Gabriel), where the prophet warns that anyone who is an enemy to God, his angels and messengers, and Jibreel and Mikail, will find God as their enemy.
Thus, Michael serves as a sort of heavenly reality check. If one sees the name Michael as a question, "Who is like God?", the answer is expected to be "nobody." Thus, Michael is supposed to remind us of both the power and majesty of God while at the same time revealing to us that nobody can be like God.
Certainly the story of how I got this name, the name of the first among the angels, does not fit with the implied majesty of Michael. I was adopted at two years old. At that time, people were calling me "Mike." I had gotten used to that name and so for my adoptive parents, changing it was out of the question. But my mother didn't like "Mike" and therefore used the formal version of the name, "Michael." In other words, my parents didn't put much thought into the name. They didn't name me after the archangel, or because of the symbolism of the name. They simply took the diminutive name that I came with and formalized it.
I wish that I could live up to the name always, but like most people, I have my times when I perhaps imperfectly resemble a fuzzy copy of Michael's strength, loyalty, courage, and majesty. There have been other times when I more accurately resemble something quite different. In a way, it's difficult to live up to the name of someone who carries the power of God and reminds us of what we are not. Perhaps that's why, at least in English-speaking nations, we don't name any of our children Jesus. Who can live up to that? People do name their children Joshua, which is probably closer to Jesus' actual name in Aramaic.
If you're named after something archetypal, something that calls to mind the most noble and perfect of human natures, does it mean that there is an unwritten or unsaid expectation that you live up to those ideals? By extension, if you live in a community named St. Michaels, or any of the many other communities named after Biblical or holy places, was there an assumption that the citizens of those places will embody such principles?
I believe that the answer is yes but not necessarily overtly. We give children and places such names because we all strive to be the fullest of what we understand humanity to be. Yet we all know that nobody can live up to ideals that we set for ourselves. That's why they are ideals. All of us are often less than ideal. But, except for a very few, we wish and we strive to be good people. We can even argue that those who are often not good people, who may even seem eveil, may be trying to reach a sort of perfection only they can understand; one which puts them very far apart from the rest of us. I can never truly be my name, Michael, in the historical, literary and religious meaning of the name. But I can be "Michael." In other words, I can do the best I can to be a good person and live up to I expect of me. And when I fail, I can always ask "Who is like God?"
When the Saints Go Marching In is a gospel and jazz standard. The line that appeals to me is the one that says "how I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in." It is performed by the incomparable Louis Armstrong in this video, with a number of other very fine musicians. I like to think that if there is a celestial orchestra, Armstrong and the other passed musicians will be jazzing up the heavenly arrangement.
If you want to know more about St. Michaels
Next up: Tilghman Island, Maryland