For the past few weeks I have been thinking about the feast of the Holy Name and what it should mean to us today. Back in the days of our youth, the 1928 Church Calendar recognized this feast as the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. But in more recent times we have become a bit squeamish with the word ‘circumcision’ and this holiday has become secularly known as New Years Day, but in many churches, it is known as Feast of the Holy Name.
About once every seven years or so, the Feast of the Holy Name (or New Years Day) falls on a Sunday. When this happens, the feast day always pre-empts Sunday, so this year there is no first Sunday after Christmas and that is why we celebrate the feast of the Holy Name today.
But, in order to understand this feast day, we really need to go back to the gospel for today and find out more about what is happening in today’s continuation in the reading of the Christmas story.
As you should know, Jesus was a Jew. He became Jewish on the eighth day of his life when Joseph took Jesus to present him to the temple priest for circumcision and to receive a name. Today there is a lot of controversy over the custom of circumcision, but in the days of Jesus and even to this day, all males who are born into or who are converted into the Jewish faith are required to be ritually circumcised as part of the ancient covenant between God and the children of Abraham. It was only through a personal sacrifice, which to the Old Testament Jews meant, the literal separation of blood and flesh that the covenant could be consummated. The covenant was a contract and was done, as I understand it, for a very mystical but also a very practical reason . . . so that a man might be permitted to hold the Torah, the Law and the Prophets, in his hands and interpret its meaning. In this way, all Jewish males are in fact ministers of the word once they attain the age of reason called bar mitzvah or son of Israel, subject to the law.
The practice of initiation through circumcision was one of the first controversies settled by the Christian church fathers. The Jewish converts into Christianity wanted to continue this ancient practice and require that every male who adopted Christianity be circumcised in the tradition of the covenant with Abraham. But it was Paul, himself a Jew, who argued against this because as he put it, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and faith in his blood, there is no longer a need for an outward sign of the covenant because we have all been reborn in the Spirit and are adopted through God’s grace into a new covenant (also born of the separation of blood and flesh but thru crucifixion) between God and all of mankind. You can imagine that many of the men of the early church were quite relieved at this far reaching decision.
But for Jesus and Joseph this was all quite normal and it was at this point that Jesus received his name, which in Aramaic is Yeshua and in Latin is Jesus, both meaning literally, ‘Savior’. But the interesting part of the story is that Jesus did not receive his name from his parents or his family, like most kids. If you remember, it was Gabriel who told Mary at the annunciation that she was to name the child ‘Jesus’ and that he would be great and be called the Son of God and that he would save his people. And so, it was that God himself named Jesus.
Names are of great importance in Holy Scripture. In the Old Testament God reveals himself to Moses and pronounces his name. Now the name of God is steeped in mystery because the priests of the temple did not want the name to fall into the hands of evil men. The closest we have come to know it is as ‘Yahweh’ which means ‘The one who causes things to happen’ or ‘the Lord’.
Think to yourself for a moment where you would be without your name. Like the ‘bulletproof monk’ you would be like the wind. No one could control you if they could not call on you. You would be invisible, wouldn’t you? Names are one of the most important things that define us. Our names, both first and in many cases last names all have meanings, many of them hidden within our family’s history. My name, Edward for instance is Anglo Saxon and means ‘Guardian’. I have known this all my life and have often felt that it has defined part of who I was to become as I grew up. Many people I know have been greatly influenced by the meaning of their names, especially among the clergy. Three that I can think of right off the top my head are Fr. Amend, Fr. Love and Fr. Harry Grace.
Right up there with the gift of Free Will, one of the greatest gifts we have been given is the ability to name things. If you remember from the story of Genesis, it was God who called the firmament heaven and the land earth. It was also God who named the sun and the moon and day and night. But then, as the story goes, God made man and named him Adam and he gave to Adam dominion over all creation as the text reads from Genesis . . . ‘And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was the name it was given.’
One of my favorite paintings is a very famous one called ‘the Ancient of Days’ by the writer/artist William Blake. It depicts God the Father as a weathered windswept ancient man with a giant pair of dividers in his hand hovering over the earth as an architect over his design. As the great I AM ‘who causes things to happen’, God provides all the mathematical equations, the laws of gravity, motion and thermodynamics, a design and a platform in time and space on which his creation is based. In all this expanse of the universe, God creates galaxies and suns and planets in their courses but gives names to only a few things that we know of . . . they are the sun, the moon, the earth, the sea, heaven, Adam, Israel, Paul, and of course, Jesus. The rest, for some reason known only to Him, he leaves up to us to ponder, to discover and to name like a gigantic game of Pictionary. And we’ve been trying to figure it all out ever since.
Today we celebrate the one name that God shared with all of us, a name that is on par with all of creation itself, the name of Jesus, at which all knees will bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth. I believe that this is just how important this event of the incarnation was. For at the naming of Jesus and the passing of the Davidic Kingdom to our Lord, time itself began afresh thanks to the forethought by the church fathers at the Year 1 and continues in every land and nearly every language two thousand and seventeen years later until this very day.
Jesus was named Savior whom we call the Christ (the anointed one) who came to earth for one reason and one reason only. That was in fact his name’s sake . . . that he would be anointed the savior of his people.
To understand the importance of the name ‘Jesus’ we must go forward in time from Bethlehem to about 33 years into the infant Jesus’ future. Here we will find him at Passover with the disciples where they will break bread together, and during his last hours with the disciples before he dies Jesus will offer up broken bread and wine poured out as a perpetual memory of the coming sacrifice of his body and blood on the cross. Because, just like the sacrifice of circumcision that required the separation of both flesh and blood, the new covenant that God had in mind also required personal sacrifice in order to consummate it. It was Jesus who was appointed from the beginning to be that sacrifice, appointed by his Father from before he was born in order to save his people from their sins. For in the very hour that Jesus was hung dying on the cross, what some may have not realized is that the Passover lambs in the temple were being sacrificed for the sins of the Jewish people. This is why the Church calls Jesus the Lamb of God. . . for in so doing, by willingly going to the cross and taking onto himself the sins of the whole world, Jesus became the means of a sacrifice that would save his people.
So what should the Feast of the Holy Name mean to us in this place and at this time? For me, it gives me peace in knowing that all is as it was destined to be, that the order of the universe which was broken by man’s sin has now been restored and that believers in Jesus the Savior live in victory over the grave. It gives me hope that the miraculous story of the incarnation will continue to unfold through future generations as the church cycle of seasons continues and until we are all finally called home. And it gives me a feeling of deep and abiding gratitude that God would humble himself to live among us as one of us and to offer his life so that we might live in him; and finally it gives me a feeling of resolve to live a life worthy of his call to me as a servant, as a brother and as a friend.
Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.