If you can believe what you read in the paper, the most popular name for young girls these days is Sophia.

The name has replaced Emily at the top of the list.

And being a religion columnist, that fact caught my eye. I'm sure most young women named Sophia now know all about Sophia Loren and maybe even Sophie Tucker. But do they also know Sophia is one of the most spiritual and sacred names in Christendom? The name has a rich, spiritual legacy that resonates down the ages.

But more on that in a moment.

First, a few thoughts about the rich legacy of name-giving.

I think parents have always tried to give their daughters names to live up to. I'm convinced they spend more time naming girls than naming boys. Puritan parents named their daughters after virtues — Constance, Grace, Joy, Prudence. In my grandmother's day, plants and stones were the order of the day. I suppose parents hoped to capture something precious, lovely and vibrant with those names. My grandmother was an Ivy, for example. But I also had aunts named Rose, Fern and Lily. And they had friends named Pearl, Opal and Ruby.

By my wife's generation, beauty became embodied in movie stars, so mothers named their girls Marilyn (Monroe), Debbie (Reynolds), Carol (Lombard) and Betty (Grable).

All along, however, Biblical names remained solid choices: Mary, Martha, Eve, Ruth and Naomi (though not many Jezebels).

But Sophia, that's a name in a class by itself.

When the Christian church split in the early years, some chose to follow the pope in Rome, while others looked east to the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. And St. Sophia became a heroine in the east. Legend has it she lived about 100 A.D. Her three daughters — Faith, Hope and Charity — were martyred for the Christian cause. When a grand church, the Hagia Sophia, was built in Turkey to honor God's wisdom ("sophia" in Greek), many came to believe it was a church for the bereaved mother of those three girls.

So Sophia came down to us as two things: a person, but also a secret, special gift that belonged only to God.

Writers in recent years have called that "gift" the "Divine Feminine." The Eastern churches felt some aspect of God had been hidden from us, that there was some feminine principle he hadn't revealed. One scholar, Christopher Bamford, saw that something (or someone) as "longing for beauty and transfiguration." Sophia was pure purity. Some even called her "God's bride."

Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov, in his book "Sophia," tries to put his finger on this heavenly and maternal essence that serves as a backdrop for everything God does, but he comes away with mixed results.

In the end — along with the Virgin Mary — the Eastern Orthodox churches see Sophia as a key ingredient in God's realm, they just don't know how or why.

So, all you Sophias, you've been given quite a name. And just because it's a common name doesn't mean it isn't filled with meaning. Wear the name well, as I'm sure you will. Just as all those young Roses, Rubies, Bettys and Naomis have worn theirs before you.

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com