by the Rev. James B. Craven III
In the name of one God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes change is good. From the middle of the sixth century until our current 1979 Book of Common Prayer, a span of more than 1400 years, January 1 was when we observed the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. On the 8th day Jewish baby boys were circumcised, and that is still the case among observant Jews. God came up with this idea, and in the 17th chapter of Genesis we hear God telling Abraham that henceforth circumcision will be a sign of the covenant between God and humankind, “So shall my covenant in your flesh be an everlasting sacrament.” Surely Abraham must have wondered about that unusual divine tenet. Most today certainly would have, but Abraham was not one to question the almighty. Jumping forward a couple of thousand years, we hear in the Gospel today from Luke:
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.
In the council at Jerusalem in 50 AD Peter and Paul arrived at the compromise, approved by the others, that Gentile converts to the faith would not have to be circumcised, but the practice continues to this day in Judaism. I was invited to a ritual circumcision once, years ago. In Judaism it is called a bris, and in this instance the guest of honor was the 8 day old son of a rabbi. I had been told the Yankee Clipper would be there. I just assumed Joe DiMaggio was a family friend, as the rabbi was a big baseball fan. So I walked in looking around for DiMaggio. It turned out the Yankee Clipper was the moel, a rabbi from up north who did the circumcision. The room was so crowded you could hardly move, and outside it was almost 98 in the shade. I decided to get a bit of fresh air and ended up flat on my back in the yard alongside two little girls who had also passed out.
Happily we are today less clinical and we celebrate today throughout the worldwide Church as the Holy Name of Our Lord. Mary and Joseph did more than have the baby circumcised on the eighth day, they also named him Jesus. As the angel said to Joseph in a dream, “she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,” from what Isaiah had written centuries earlier:
Behold a virgin (or young woman) shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.
We remember too the birth of John the Baptist to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, several months before the birth of Jesus. On the eighth day after the birth of Elizabeth’s baby, he was circumcised and the family was about to name him Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth said “No, he shall be called John,” But no one in the family on either side was named John, so they asked his father, who could not speak. Zechariah wrote on a tablet “His name is John,” and immediately Zechariah could speak, blessing God. What a powerful moment, immediately followed by The Song of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus Dominus Deus, a part of our Morning Prayer liturgy for at least 500 years.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he hath visited and redeemed his people;
and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets,
which have been since the world began:
that we should be saved from our enemies,
and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers,
and to remember his holy covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham,
that he would give us,
That we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies
might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him,
all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest,
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord
to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation to his people
for the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
A name is important. In ancient times knowing one’s name gave someone power over that person. When Jacob wrestled with God, or God’s angel, all night and had his thigh put out of joint, Jacob insisted on being blessed. God said “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have strivened with God and with man, and have prevailed.” But when Jacob asked him his name, God did not give him his name, but blessed him. And when Jacob’s sons went down to Egypt to get food in the time of famine, they were met by “I am your brother Joseph.”
When Moses saw the angel appearing to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a burning bush, God said to him “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob…tell the people of Israel that I am Who I Am has sent me to you…the Lord, the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you. This is my name forever.”
As we pray in the collect this morning:
Eternal Father, you gave your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus. Plant In every heart..the love of him…our lord Jesus Christ.
The blessing we heard from Numbers earlier shows us again the power of a name:
The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
And in Psalm 8, “How exalted is in your name in all the world”.
In his great Christ hymn in Philippians, Paul speaks of how “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above everyname, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend.”
In our baptismal liturgy the celebrant says “Name this child,” and the parents and godparents respond. I was baptized by my grandfather, and named for him and for my father and great great grandfather. My own son Jamie was named at his baptism at St. Joseph’s 52 years ago for all of those plus me. My son Joe was named for his great grandfather Joseph, a French Canadian Roman Catholic, who may well have been named for Joseph of Nazareth, the husband of Mary, and our grandson was named for both, maybe all three. My grandmother Mary was named for her grandmother, and my mother Mary named my sister Mary for both of them. But surely Mary the blessed Mother cannot be excluded from this family naming. And then there are the zillions of Latinos named for Jesus.
In this generational naming, which applies to every family here at St. Luke’s, we see folks long passed alive again in our memories and in our hearts. We are maybe more aware of that this time of year, in this Christmas season, than at any time of the year, when “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” And make no mistake about it, it is still Christmas, though there is no more Christmas music in the malls, and not on any radio unless you have short wave from Europe. I remember my father telling me how he wept, and was not alone, hearing a scratchy White Christmas on a San Francisco radio station on short wave on some South Pacific Island.
As I said, we are still in the 12 day Christmas season, and the Gospel today from Luke illustrates that. Remember that the angels, and an angel is a divine messenger, had told the shepherds abiding in the fields of the big event at the manger in Bethlehem. So the shepherds went, with haste, to Bethlehem “and found Mary and Joseph , and the child lying in the manger.” And they told them what they had learned from the angel. And all were amazed. In spite of what they had been told before the birth, this great and mysterious story was only just now becoming clear to Mary and Joseph, and we can only imagine how overwhelmed they must have been. But Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And then, after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus, not a name chosen by his parents, but the name given by the angel Gabriel before he was conceived in the womb. All of us here were named by our parents, but Jesus was named by God, his heavenly father. And of course we too are children of God, so it all fits together.
On the fourth Sunday in Advent, and again on Christmas Eve, the choir sang the Ave Maria, also known as the Hail Mary or the Angelic Salutation. The devotional use of this beautiful prayer goes back at least to the eleventh century, almost a thousand years ago, and of course is derived entirely from Holy Scripture, in the first chapter of the gospel according to Luke. So let’s close with it today:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit
of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray
for us now and at the hour of our death.