THE HOLY NAME — 1 January 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. [Luke 2:21]
Happy New Year!
Well, no, as you presumably know, that’s not what we’re doing here this morning. At least not for the next hour.
In the civil calendar the end of an old year and the beginning of a new year is completely arbitrary, though in the modern world virtually universal. There’s nothing magic about the first day of January. In fact, that we call today “the first day of January” instead of “the fifty-seventh day of Axlotl” is a purely human construct. We’ve done the “New Year” thing lots of different ways. The ancient Romans began the year in March. (This explains how September, October, November, and December got their names; once upon a time they were the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months!) Later the Romans changed New Year's Day to the first of January. But that didn't settle it. The Christian Church's year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, about the end of November; although in fact throughout much of Christian history, the change of the year in Christendom was observed on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, the moment of our Lord Jesus Christ's Incarnation in the womb of his mother Mary - a date which, in pious legend, was also held to be the date of the creation of the world and also the re-creation of the world through the resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter. The Jews, of course, celebrate the beginning of the year -- Rosh haShanah -- in the early fall. People elsewhere in the world calculate the year as beginning at various other times. Chinese New Year comes in late January or February, for instance. In the reality of our own lives, the year really begins for many of us along about late August, with the beginning of the school year; everything "picks up" again after a generally slower summer pace, including vacations. I've always rather envied people like the Australians and New Zealanders, in the southern hemisphere, whose natural summer break is occurring just now, coincidentally with the civil New Year which has in fact become universal throughout the world.
But in the Church's calendar today we celebrate the feast of The Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We used to call it the Feast of the Circumcision, remembering that on the eighth day after his birth, Jesus was circumcised, in accordance with Jewish Law, as we hear in the Gospel today. And it was, and is, at a Jewish boy’s bris that he is formally given his name. And so now we call this day The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
But I’m not sure we’re completely getting the point. Yes, Jesus formally received his name on this day, and his name “Jesus” is important because – when you follow the English “Jesus” back through the Latin “Iesus” through the Greek “Iêsous” through the Aramaic “Yeshua” to the Hebrew “Yehoshua” – this name means, roughly, “The Lord saves.” And that’s who Jesus is. The Savior.
But this day was also the day when Jesus formally became a Jew, or, a bit more precisely, formally was received into the covenant community of Israel.
During much of the history of the Christian Church, we have apparently been embarrassed by, or even tried to deny, Jesus’ Jewishness. This, of course led to some really appalling episodes in our history, of which the holocaust under the Nazis was the most horrendous. But let’s not kid ourselves – what happened in Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s was very much the product of a profound misunderstanding by generation after generation of Christians about who Jesus is and what God is up to in Jesus.
One of the reasons, I assume, that God selected the Hebrews to be the “chosen people” – (“Hebrews” is an ethnic designation for a particular middle-Eastern people; by ancestry they were called “Israelites,” that is, descendents of Israel, a/k/a Jacob, the grandson, or so the story went, of their first patriarch Abraham; a great-grandson of Abraham and son of Jacob/Israel was named Judah, and many hundreds of years later his tribe had become the dominant, though not the only, surviving Israelite group, and so after the return to their homeland from a period of exile in Babylonia they were generally called “Judeans,” or as we would say in English, “Jews.”) – by whatever name, one of the reasons God selected these folks to be the “chosen people” was to provide an effective context for God’s own Incarnation, that is, God’s “enfleshment,” in the human person of Jesus of Nazareth. (I don’t claim that this was God’s only reason for choosing them, but that’s another story for another time.)
So we need to understand that the whole history of the people of Israel – which, after all, takes up something like three quarters of our Bible – is not just a “backstory” to Jesus. God really did enter into our real human world, a very specific human world, among a very specific human community in a very specific geographical place, at a very specific time in human history, as a very real human being.
God is not a puppeteer. God does not sit up above the human world pulling strings and micromanaging everything that goes on. God is not a magician who runs the world with a wave of a wand. We actually have a hard time with that, and many folks get very upset with God because that isn’t how God works. (That’s how we would operate the universe if we were God, but, guess what? we’re not! Let’s get over it!)
The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, which we celebrate especially at this season of the year, does not mean God coming and slumming among us in human guise but without really touching or being touched by our humanity and our historicity. That would not really be good news. The good news is that God is our Savior from among us, from within our human world, as a participant in our human history. In Jesus, God saves us from the inside, not by power but by love. The Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. [John 1:14]