What’s in a Name?

No unisex names.  No weird names.  Just a normal girl’s name.  This was the criteria I put forward when my wife and I first discussed selecting our daughter’s name.

I wanted everyone to see my daughter’s name on paper and know that she was a girl.  This might date back to my days as a teacher, butchering a student’s name by feminizing it.  Both he and I were a little embarrassed, though it was admittedly a hilarious moment.

And the ban on “weird” names?  The need to create a brand new name that none of the other billions of people on earth have has always seemed a bit absurd to me.  A person is not unique because of their name.  They are not defined by their name.  Their character is what defines their identity.

Yet somehow my wife and I have ended up with Avery Xi Madalena Christian.  Yes, I will explain why, as I inevitably must whenever someone asks about the name.

My wife and I picked Avery because it is a family name, dating back (on this continent) to Christopher Avery who immigrated to America in 1630 on the Arabella with his fellow Puritans, probably looking for a shining city upon a hill.  It was my great-grandmother’s maiden name, it’s a middle name to numerous people I love dearly (including one of my brothers) and it is the middle name of my grandpa, Deacon Thomas Avery Combellick, who has been known to go by Deke Avery.  He is a paragon of Christian love, spreading warmth, love, and joy wherever he goes.  He also shows how a Christian can synthesize faith and reason, science and religion, moral ideals and their practical implementation, and loving the wonderful gift that is life while also longing for communion with God and all the saints, known and unknown, who live in the light of God’s incandescent love.

We chose Xi (pronounced: see) because we wanted to recognize a woman who played an enormous and invaluable role in my upbringing.  An immigrant from Vietnam who fled communist tyranny with her five children and youngest on the way, she babysat my brothers and me for nearly a decade and a half.  Her character and love provide an ideal model for our daughter.  While we are not related by blood, Xi (my brother Tommy’s godmother) is family, and naming our daughter after her gives us a way to outwardly display this fact.  Embedded in her name is the fundamental truth that love means more than conformity, that it is the ultimate and final standard.  And her story is a testament to the importance and value of freedom and community, two pillars of the common good.

Finally, we were all set on Avery Xi Christian until the last days before her birth, when drawing inspiration from the celebration of Easter, the ultimate day of Christian hope, and on today’s gospel reading, we decided to add a special name for our special child born during Easter Week.  And so we chose Madalena, after one of our favorite saints, Mary Magdalene, the first to witness Christ after his resurrection.  Surely this must have reflected her incredible faith, courage, and devotion to Jesus, even in the most perilous of times.  Madalena is a reminder to Avery that she can do all things through Christ who gives her strength, whose witness to the resurrected Christ shows that gender-based limits have no place for those animated by the love of Christ.  She is a feminist inspiration, the Apostle to the Apostles, proof of the equality of men and women as children of God.

And again there is a family connection.  My paternal grandmother Edna’s family comes from Pico Island of the Azores, where Madalena is the island’s main town and harbor.  This name thus binds her to another side of her family, those who eventually left behind the Azores, then Hawaii and Brazil, to arrive in California so that she might have a better life.  This name links her to those daring people and the ones who came before them.  My grandma Edna is a third exemplary model for our daughter, again an exceptionally loving person, entirely devoted to her husband and family, with a wonderful sense of humor and the profile of a Renaissance woman, exceling in work, academics, athletics, the arts, and of course, staring contests.

So much for the plan to have a jejune, bland name. I suppose this provides an early lesson that you can’t parent by the book or checklist, but need to go with the flow—that parenting is an art that requires dexterity, not rigidity.

In the end, her name reflects that which we value above and beyond anything else.  She was conceived and born in love, and we have loved her for every millisecond of her existence, before and after her first breath.  And we will be dedicated every day to making sure that she feels that unconditional love and that this virtue animates her life and inspires her actions, so that she might follow in the footsteps of Xi, Edna, and Tom and reach her full potential as a human person.

And if we mess up, starting with this name selection, well, we can always have more kids.  Maybe a Gordon Pham João Christian…well, maybe not.