YHWH: Sacred Silence

In more recent news from the Vatican, the Congregation for Divine Worship has issued a directive concerning the utterance of the Name of God in Catholic liturgy. The Hebrew 'tetragrammaton' for the name of God, YHWH (often depicted as "Yahweh"), is no longer to be said aloud during the course of the Mass or any other liturgy of the Church. This will not alter any of the official texts of the Mass, since the Church has always held regard for the sacred name, which is an acronym for the Hebrew words, "I AM WHO AM"—the name given to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. The only alterations which will need to be made at present, according to the CWN report, pertain to some hymns, which invoke "Yahweh" by name. This is good news for the US bishops, who have been working tirelessly on the approval of new translations of the official liturgical texts.

However, I don't think it's coincidence that the Vatican directive on the pronunciation of the tetragrammaton is aimed only at non-official texts. Certainly, the scope of this new instruction as being aimed only at miscellaneously published texts in songs and other improvised prayers (such as the prayers of the faithful, etc.) is not without cause. The fundamental reason, in my opinion, is that this isn't the first time the Church has dealt with this topic. Even recently, in the 2001 document from the Congregation, Liturgicam Authenticam, the same issue is addressed:

In accordance with immemorial tradition...the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH) and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning. (LA, 41)

Biblical translators have used a variety of words to translate the tetragrammaton, including Dominus, and its Greek version, Kyrios, both stemming from the Hebrew word, Adonai. In fact, the tradition of using alternative titles for God, other than the proper name given in Exodus, has been continuously present in the formation of liturgical texts since the early days of the Church. The curious matter here seems to be, "Why all of a sudden a directive with the intent of restricting the use of the Name of God?"

The answer, I think, lies in a greater problem than simply the utterance of the word, "YHWH." The modern mindset seems to tend toward two extremes, both of which are equally harmful: either 'all is sacred' or 'nothing is sacred.' In the end, both equal out to pretty well the same thing. Both deny the rift between what is transcendental and what is ordinary. In short, both deny the need for mediation between the natural and supernatural. In Christian theology, we call this mediator Jesus Christ. Without Christ, there is no mediation between God and man; sinfulness and brokenness bind man irrevocably. Thus, without the Mediator, nothing is sacred (except of course that which we cannot ever hope to attain). On the flip side, if one assumes that the rift between transcendent and ordinary is bridged by human nature—somehow able to traverse both sides of the metaphysically unbridgeable gap—then the result is that 'all is sacred,' insofar as "all" is experienced and has to do with man's primacy over everything else.

The appearance, in recent years, of "Yahweh" in the liturgy is perhaps nothing other than the beginnings of such a mindset. It should go without saying that many of the songs used in worship have become increasingly less-theological and more-emotive. While there is nothing wrong with acknowledging and articulating emotion and its connection with our created and redeemed nature, we need to be aware that all perception of emotion must necessarily coincide with our theological understanding of God. If our hearts and minds are not pointed in the same direction, we are acting duplicitously. This is not the action called for by the Church.

Although uttering the Name of God during Mass is perhaps a small indication of this mindset, it is nonetheless an indicator. As Catholics, we ought to be ever conscious of our tendencies toward self-exaltation and pride. If we truly believe that 'calling upon the name of the Lord' is a sacred action—sacred enough in Jewish tradition that to utter it is a profanation thereof—then our liturgical and public actions should reflect that truth. The Church, herself born from the Jewish faith, understands this serious responsibility of the faithful to act in accord with such a prominent tradition. We should always seek to understand more and more how we might venerate the blessed Name of God, especially when we are so close to that same Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

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    # by annina - August 14, 2008 at 3:57 PM

    Ich auch wusste nicht das Sie Deutsch sprechen! Haben Sie es in der Schule gelernt? Ja, ich studiere in Miland, besuche die Katolische Universität. In meiner Freizeit singe ich auch, in 2 Chore, und arbeite als Babysitter. Leider kenne ich die Universität von Steubenville nicht, wo liegt sie?

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    # by Andrew Reinhart - August 15, 2008 at 3:56 PM

    One question about this phrase Andy.
    "the rift between what is transcendental and what is ordinary."

    Do you mean the "transcendental" like in the philosophy of Kant or the "transcendent"?

    Just wondering about how I should understand this sentance. Thanks!

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    # by Andrew Haines - August 16, 2008 at 1:10 AM

    I'm not really sure if the distinction you call to mind is even necessary here--perhaps I'm not seeing what you are. I simply meant the 'transcendent,' i.e. that which is beyond reach. In other words, for human beings the 'supernatural' is 'transcendent.' It is beyond reach, without the help of mediation.

    Did the Kantian sense have any implications...?

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    # by Andrew Haines - August 16, 2008 at 1:16 AM


    Steubenville liegt in Ohio in die USA. Ist nur eine kleine Uni, aber sie geben viele Aussagen von der katholische Glaube. Die Hauptfächer sind besonders Theologie und Philosophie. Wir haben nicht ein Chor, aber singe ich auch, und wunsche ich mich dass wir einen gregorianischer Chor anfangen konnten.

    Danke für deine Antwort. Bis bald...

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    # by Andrew Reinhart - August 16, 2008 at 5:26 PM

    I was just wondering because transcendent is already an adjective (and so the 'tal' really adds nothing). Thus I was wondering if the word choice had meaningbeyond what you just explained. I guess transcendental in the Kantian sense would mean for me (who is in no way an expert) something much more anthropocentric. All that is transcendent is absolutely unknowable and so we turn to what is transcendental (ie transcendental ego). I am probably getting too picky, but I was just curious.

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    # by Andrew Haines - August 18, 2008 at 9:45 AM

    I see what you mean. I suppose the word I was intending here was "transcendent."