Preached on 1 January 2017 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Feast of the Holy Name, Year A
On the 8th Day of Christmas, Mary and Joseph gave their true love – their son – a bris and a Name.
That was the custom – when your son was 8 days old, your friends and family would gather together and celebrate his birth, giving thanks to God for this newest member of the community. And he would be circumcised and you would name him. There was a lot of tradition surrounding the choice of name, too.
It was the custom. Everybody did it; at least every good Jew did.
And yet, even though it was just what everybody did, this particular event in Jesus’ life was so important that we, commemorate it today, 2000 years later. In fact, it is so important that it displaces the regular Sunday observance. So you see, this is apparently a pretty big deal.
But WHY?! After all, everybody has a name.
Perhaps it’s precisely that. He is named – unlike God, but just like every other human being on the face of the planet. And he is a Jew; circumcised as a member of the Covenant, born and reared according to the Law of Moses.
Now, names in the Bible ARE important. They almost always have some significance.
For one thing, in the Bible, spoken words are understood to have power, almost a physical existence – whether blessings or curses (remember when Isaac was unable to give his son, Essau a blessing, because he had already given it to Jacob?). Names are the same way. How often we hear in the Bible phrases like, “I will call upon the Name of the Lord…” “I will trust in your Name and not be afraid,” “Glorify His Name…” Speaking a name has power.
Another thing is the idea of power over. It was understood that when you named something, you had power over it. We see this most clearly in the stories of Creation. In Genesis 1, God creates and then names the sun, the moon, the earth, the sky, and so on. It’s a way of saying that God has power over all of these things in creation. In Genesis 2, however, God creates, but then brings all of the animals to the man and he names them. The man has dominion over them – to care for the creation. So, in effect, when Mary and Joseph name him, God incarnate in a baby boy, is subject to them; is under their power. That’s a pretty big deal.
And finally, there is the significance and meaning of the name itself. Do you know what your name means? Do you know how you got it? Were you named for someone? Mary and Jesus gave their son the name the angel told them to, but it’s a little confusing to us because Jesus is the latinized version of his name. In Hebrew, it would have been Yeshua or Joshua. Like the book of the Bible – Moses’ successor. It was Joshua who brought the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land. He is an important and revered figure in the history of the Israelites and probably a lot of boys were named after him.
Jesus’ name connects him with the history of his people. But it’s also a promise, a blessing. You see, Joshua means, “God will save.”
So we see that when Mary and Joseph named Jesus, it was much more than “what should we call him? The angel suggested Jesus – sounds good.” Naming him points to his connections to the history of his people, to his community, to the Covenant, and to the whole human family.
Now think about your own name. Our names often say something about our parents, in a way – about their culture, their values, sometimes their hopes and dreams for us. Our name is an important part of our identity. On the one hand it sets us apart as an individual. On the other hand, our name also connects us to a family, and often a clan that may extend across the globe and into history.
I once knew a family and the dad would say kind of light-heartedly to his children, “don’t bring shame to the name.” It sounded almost like a joke. But the kids knew it wasn’t entirely a joke. He was saying, remember your behavior in the world, how you treat people, reflects not only on you, but on your whole family; on everyone who shares your name.
Well, we have another name, besides the one given to us by our parents, our family, our spouse. It’s a name that connects us to a community. In fact it is a name that we all share. That name is Christian. When we are baptized, we join the family of Christ. Think about that for a minute. It is almost like when a person changes their name when they marry – they are joining themselves to another family, sharing their name.
Today is New Year’s Day; a day when many people choose to make a fresh start, take on a new project, or to develop a new habit. I have an idea for you to consider for this year. What would it be like to fully embrace your name as Christian; your identity as a member of the family of Christ? Think about the family I told you about that understood that everything they did reflected on the family name. What would it mean to do everything in the name of Christ? And I don’t mean in a judgmental sense, but freely, joyfully, generously; To BE Christ in all we do, in all our interactions? How and where would we spend our time and money and energy? How would we do our work and go about our daily tasks?
Think about it. Try it. It may be the best Christmas gift you ever receive.
Happy New Year.