Sermon for Naming & Circumcision of Jesus High Mass Sunday 1 January 2017
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: numbers 6.22-end; Galatians 4,4-7; Luke 2.15-21
The Roman God Janus, from whom our month of January takes its name, looks in two directions: back to the old year that has ended and forward to the new one which is beginning.
The Christian feast we celebrate on the 1st day of January also looks, as its rather long title, “The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus,” suggests, in more than one direction.
This child “born of a woman, born under the law,” was born of a Jewish mother and, according to that law, he was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. He received the physical mark of Israel’s obedience to the covenant between God and his people. So this feast reminds us of the Jewishness of Jesus; his rootedness in what we call the Old Testament or Covenant which gives the New its language and images to understand who this child and the man he grew to be under the tutelage of Mary and Joseph, would be and what he means, not just for the Jewish people, but as Paul passionately argues in the Letter to the Galatians, for all people. He is born not just “under the law” but “of a woman.” He shares a double identity: with the Jewish people and with all humankind.
Christian devotion came to see this first shedding of Christ’s blood as foreshadowing his death on the cross. At a time when the poison of anti-semitism is being spread again, we might also see it as a reminder of the roots of our faith in Judaism, our common inheritance. The Holy Family were all Jewish.
As the angel had instructed Joseph, he was also named Jesus, a version of Joshua, “the Lord saves”, because he would “save his people from their sins.” Devotion to the holy name of Jesus became strong in this country in the Middle Ages, and in the old calendar, there was a feast of the Holy Name on August 7. That devotion is now reflected in the title of this feast; which combines naming and circumcision. It is reflected, too, in the tradition, which survived into Anglican canon law, of reverencing the name of Jesus by bowing.
A name in scripture is both significant, that is it conveys meaning: the one who is called “the Lord Saves“ will be the Saviour, the one who will “save his people from their sins.” Names also exert power: in this case, as our reading of the priestly blessing from the Book of Numbers, suggests, to bring blessing: “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them. That blessing comes at the end of a long passage of instructions about isolating people with skin diseases or other complaints, or who have been in contact with dead bodies. Some may sound odd to us, but some of the things we fuss about today may seem equally odd a thousand years from now. The aim is not permanent exclusion from the people of God but restoration to it. The purpose of the law is the peace of the community; peace, shalom, meaning its positive well-being rather than just an absence of conflict. And so, today is an appropriate day for us to pray for the peace of our world.
In the world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the well-known “Jesus Prayer,” with its repetition of the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” prays for the blessing of redemption, of salvation.
What does this redemption mean? We know what we are saved from, from our sins, from that disobedience which separates us from God, but what are saved for? Salvation is sometimes seen as simply a legal transaction by which we who are guilty are declared innocent, and Paul certainly uses such language. But there is more to it than that. Redemption is a restoration of relationship, or as Paul puts in Galatians, adoption as children of God. Now adoption, is at one level, is a matter of law. In the gospel, when Joseph names Jesus, who was not his son by physical descent, he is adopting him. But the adoption of a child is about far more than legal status: it is about relationship and belonging; it is about being loved and secure; it is about having a family, a home.
And so, Paul speaks of God sending, ‘the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”’ As he says in the Letter to the Romans, it is the Spirit of Jesus who prays within us; who enables us to share that intimate relationship of Jesus with the Father, that communion, that oneness, which was seen above all in his life of prayer; that life which we whom Jesus teaches to pray “Our Father,” are called and enabled to share.
The liturgical tradition which focuses on the circumcision and naming of Jesus, has its roots in northern Europe, but there is another tradition in western Christianity. In Rome, this feast is that of “Mary, the Mother of God.” It is the oldest Marian feast in the Roman Calendar. It is derived from the place of Mary in today’s Gospel.
St. Luke closes his story of the birth of Jesus with the reactions of three different participants.
- The shepherds, who come and find the message of the angels verified by the sign of the child, the infant Messiah, lying in a manger. They glorify and praise God for all they have seen and heard. Then we hear no more of them.
- There is, too, an unnamed group of hearers, presumably inhabitants of Bethlehem, who are amazed by what the shepherds tell them. Amazement, astonishment, often accompanies Jesus words and deeds in the gospel, but it does not always lead to lasting faith; any more than attending a carol service does. Like the shepherds, these witnesses disappear from the drama.
- The third person in the scene will not disappear. She has more than a walk-on part. She is the only participant in the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ life who will be there at its end and beyond. She will stand at the foot of the cross and, as Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, she will be there in the upper room praying with the believing community for the promised gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.
This is Mary who “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She, too, had been “astonished” when the angel came to her with the message of the annunciation: “How can this be?” But in the Holy Spirit who has come upon her, her sharing is more perceptive. She is the one who hears the word of God and keeps it. She personifies those in the parable of the sower, “who hearing the word of God, hold it fast in a good and honest heart.”
Luke speaks of Mary as one who seeks to interpret these events surrounding the birth of Jesus. In this, she is the model Christian believer, the first disciple of Jesus. In this she is a pattern for us all, for we are to treasure not only the message of the angels and shepherds, but the whole gospel and ponder it in our hearts.
We do this in both communal and personal prayer: as we hear the scriptures proclaimed and expounded in the liturgy of the Church and celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the sacraments; as we meditate and reflect on them, in mind and imagination, as we even wrestle with them, in our personal prayers.
If we are to make one New Year resolution, it should be to devote more time and attention to this.