Monday, January 01, 2007

What's in a Name? -- Homily for 12/31/2006

First reading: Numbers 6:22-27 Gospel: Luke 2:16-21

What’s in a name?

Well, first, tonight we are celebrating the eve of the feast celebrated on January 1, and that feast has different names, depending on the era and tradition in which it was celebrated. For most of the church’s history, and still in churches following the Byzantine calendar, January 1 has been celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision, since it is the eighth day of Jesus’ life if one celebrates his birth on December 25, and Jewish boys are circumcised on the eighth day of their lives. In the modern Roman Rite, returning to an ancient tradition, this day is celebrated as the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, even though the traditional gospel recounting the circumcision is still read. And our Anglican and Lutheran sisters and brothers celebrate the day as the Holy Name of Jesus, since it was at Jesus’s bris, or circumcision, that he received his name. Since our Independent Catholic tradition has roots in the Roman, Anglican, and Byzantine traditions – I propose that we celebrate all three!

In our first reading, we hear of the solemn blessing with which the priests blessed the people of Israel. Within the Jewish tradition, this blessing is still used to this day, given by those believed to descend from the family of Aaron, and the solemn blessing is one of the holiest moments of Jewish liturgy. God’s most sacred name, thought by scholars to have been pronounced something like “Yahweh”, is invoked, a name so holy that it came to be uttered only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, by the high priest in the temple. The rest of the time, whenever the sacred name appeared in the text, the term “the LORD” was substituted, as it was in the version we just heard. In most English translations, you can tell when the sacred name is used by the fact that “LORD” is in all capital letters. In time, even the Hebrew word for “Lord” came to be deliberately mispronounced by Orthodox Jews outside of prayer. And the name means “He/She causes to become”. So the One who causes all things to come into being is the one who blesses us, preserves us, and gives us peace – and the word for “peace” in Hebrew, shalom, is derived from the root for “whole” or “complete” – so the peace that the Source of all being grants is not merely the absence of conflict, but a state of wholeness.

In the gospel, we hear that Jesus is initiated into the covenant of Israel through his circumcision, and he is given the name “Jesus”, which is how we pronounce the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Yehoshua”, or “Joshua”. That name means “Yahweh is salvation”. And we as Christians believe, as the foundation of our faith, that Jesus is Yahweh, God, incarnate – that the One who causes all things to come into being chose to accept the limitations of becoming a human being subject to the limitations of time and space in order to give us salvation, to free us from those very limitations by giving us eternal life. And how better to express that than by being born to a couple too poor to afford a room in the inn, being born in a dirty stable?

And what should be our response to this salvation, this freedom from sin, death, and all of the other limitations of humanity? We hear that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in our heart”. Mary is humanity responding to God with a resounding “Yes!” to all of the ridiculously impossible things God offers, starting with the Annunciation. And she draws closer to God by reflecting on the mystery of the Incarnation, reflecting on it in her heart, or as another translation puts it – “pondering”. Let us also meditate on this great mystery of our faith, that God has taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. And let us know that it was not merely an event from 2,000 years ago – Christ is present in our midst, in our individual lives, in our community, most tangibly in the Eucharist. The One who causes all things to come into being is our salvation – Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the Name of Jesus! and Happy New Year!

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