The break from work is almost over too. Last night we were counting down the seconds of the old year and now we are counting down the sleeps before school and work starts - funny how often we spend our lives wishing, or fearing, the days ahead as they diminish isn't it?
Today, like every day, we have a day of fresh starts and yet on the first day of a new year it seems the hopes we have and the resolutions we make are somehow all the more important and our plans all the more special. That said, here we are looking towards a new year in which we pray for peace and yet this resolution-filled day is, for the Church, even more special for it is also the day in which we reflect upon the Naming and Circumcision of Christ - and this, as far as I am concerned, is much more important.
The Christmas season is more than ‘ho, ho, ho’, it’s more like ‘ho, ho, holy cow – as Stephen is martyred, Innocents are slaughtered bring us to today; a day which speaks of covenant and a name and sacrifice made real as Jesus the infant, the Christ, sheds His innocent blood for us, through circumcision.
The Church celebrates circumcision – but why, what does this have to do with us (especially the non-Jewish us) today?
Well it's all about covenants – a (and I quote) ‘solemn and binding agreement’ between Abraham and God, the account of which we find in Genesis 17.9-12:
"God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring,"
Circumcision was a visible physical sign that set God’s people apart from the rest of those around them. It made it easy to prove that they'd beaten their opponents in battle (in Uganda they collected ears!) and reminded them that in the shedding of their blood they were one of the people of God – and had to live up to all that meant!
Blood was shed in the making of the contract and would be shed again when the Messiah came – without the shedding of blood there could be no forgiveness (Leviticus 17 and Hebrews 9) – and we, as Christians, look to the cross and the blood shed for us there as fulfilment of this.
And it had to be done. On the eighth day every boy child, in obedience to God’s command, would be circumcised. This is the initiation into the family of faith just like our baptism, which many parallel it to. Later the boy would be carried into the place of worship and would read the holy scriptures and having done so would walk from the scroll as a man at his BarMitzvah. Some like to parallel this with Confirmation but I don't think that's as helpful as some might think –ask me later).
So God made man, Jesus, has taken on flesh and taken a sign in His flesh – He is aligned and accepted and made one with the people He has come to save. But the naming, what of that?
A couple of years back I played in Romeo and Juliet where the question, “What’s in a name?” appears – and that's a good question indeed. Call a rose by any other name and it would still be what it is and smell as fragrant, but names are in fact more than a label, they bring meaning and depth to that to which that are attached.
There are family names, I'm Victor Michael Cornelius – Vic when all goes well, Victor when in trouble and should my Mum have used all three, well that meant I was totally busted, didn't it?
We use family names and names that speak of our hopes – an Australian child received the name ‘Skipper’ in the hope it would lead to his son becoming captain of one of the national sporting sides when he got to be a bit older.
I got ‘Victor’ because it was my Dad’s name and ‘Cornelius’ as a family name – for names speak of belonging too.
In Luke 2 we mention of how the Christ was named Jesus; the name the angel gave Him when he appeared to Mary. Jesus is Yeshua (or Joshua) and that ‘God saves’ name is not only a fitting name for this child but something of a statement of intent too. And this Jesus is also ‘Immanuel’: ‘God is with us’ - a name we find cropping up in Isaiah 7.
Today is about family: As one of God’s people in the family of faith and as a member of a family of flesh – and in Jesus the two come together in a most splendid way.
The Word made flesh takes upon Himself the covenant and becomes part of the family of faith that He has come to save. He has become one of us in becoming flesh and become one of the people of God (which as God He already was) in that flesh (incarnate) creation that is the babe of Bethlehem.
Jesus, in being named is also affirmed as being part of an earthly family - He belongs at that level too. He is is in the world and is fully part of it. He's not playing at being man, He is fully man and fully part of the people, His people, He came to save.
Astounding, amazing, confusing too (after who ever heard of God putting all that off and becoming mortal?) and that is what today is so very important for us.
In the Old Testament reading 'God has put His name on His people - He has called them His; this means that we too who are members of the family of faith which puts its trust in the God of the Jews (YHWH) also have His name on us. How cool is this?
The New Testament confirms the humanity of Jesus and the adoption we have into this family of faith (for we are as Christians members of a Jewish sect) grafted on as part of that same family of faith. How amazing is this that we who 'were far off' have become one with and part of that family which comes through the covenant God created with Abraham. It is immense and amazing isn't it?
So, January the first – not about making resolution we will never keep, for they like the diaries we promise to keep each year will soon fade and fall away, but a day to remember the place we have in the family of faith and the family of flesh and to reflect on what this means for us in the coming year/s.
To decide to be a better Christian and a better family member perhaps?
To decide to trust in God and the people of God for the things we might think we need to handle alone?
To decide to let our acceptance into God's family and the name He has given us set us free to do what He has called us to be, and to do, as part of that spiritual household in, and among, the family of flesh to which we belong?
whose blessed Son was circumcised in obedience to the law for our sake
and given the Name that is above every name:
give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, to worship him in the freedom of the Spirit,
and to proclaim him as the Saviour of the world;
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel:
you shall say to them, 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 his countenance upon you and give you peace. “
So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another,
“Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.
And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Post Communion Prayer
Eternal God, whose incarnate Son was given the Name of Saviour: grant that we who have shared in this sacrament of our salvation may live out our years in the power of the Name above all other names, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.