“You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.”
When I was working with traveling retreat teams, we used to do a skit based on the Our Father which began with one of the girls on our team kneeling down to pray. She would make the sign of the cross, and then pray: Our Father, who art in Heaven…
And God would answer (in a booming voice over the P.A. system with lots of reverb): Yes?
She would then look around, confused, and say: 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?
As she worked through the prayer, God would gently explain to her each of the clauses of the Lord’s prayer that she had intended to rattle off as though they were a duty. But this first part essentially makes up the heart of the second commandment. To speak God’s name means something -and so to use it without the intention of speaking to Him misses the point of why we can address God. Think about it: every time someone yells/curses/speaks in disgust saying “God” or “Jesus,” they are misusing His name. Just as the girl in the skit prayer without realizing what she was saying (that’s the point of the skit), those who swear, are in a sense ‘praying,’ because God always answers when we call. You need to understand here the value of a name. Oppressive regimes often make a point of taking away someone’s name and replacing it with a number- for example, in Les Miserables, Javert always addresses Jean Valjean by his prisoner number, 24601, because he doesn’t respect his personhoood. For Christians, someone’s name matters:
“Christians treat the name of a person reverently, because the name is profoundly connected with that person’s identity and dignity.” -YouCat 361
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, just to get you started). That’s the point of the first part of the skit, as I shared it with you above – God hears when we call Him. It’s why He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. And so His name means something:
“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’s two main implications that come from this commandment not to take God’s name in vain. The first is the obvious one: think about the words that we use. Several years ago, a priest pointed out to me that in every culture, we swear using that which is most sacred to our society – in French, all their swears are based on religious terms – Mary, the Tabernacle, etc; in english, we swear using various terms to describe bodily functions (or parts), and quite often, by yelling “God” or “Jesus” in disgust. Think about it like this: what does it say about you when the only words you can use to express frustration are four letters long? Does that show a certain maturity or sophistication? I struggle most with swearing – with being angry in general – 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, shoot or pass better, or make a jump in a video game (not exactly a competitve sport, but you get the idea.) In confession, a priest told me point blank that this inability to see a game as a game and to get so carried away shows my own lack of maturity. And he’s right. By this commandment, in a certain sense, 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, it (as well as swearing in general) is also a sign that we have some growing up to to do.
The 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
Having participated in Ukranian Catholic liturgies, one of the things that struck me the most about them was the degree of reverence with which the priest and congregation treated everything. The priests’ vestments, the use of incense, and even the prayers themselves denote an incredible sense of reverence for God, for His presence, and for all that reminds us of His presence. While we celebrate it differently in the Latin (Roman) rite, we, too, value the Word of God, the prayers we pray, and the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist… and contained in this commandment is a direction from God to treat all these things with respect. So that’s what we do. Any blessed object (ex: Bible, Cross, Rosary) which is damaged or unwanted is not supposed to be thrown away or even sold again – they are to be given away, buried, or burned. It’s a sign of respect and honor for the God who is holy – who is at the same time calling us to be holy. And to do that means starting to pay attention to the sacredness of God’s name (and to mind what we say.)