The name changes everything
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
1 January 2012, 10:30 (The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus)
This time last year I was in Medway Maritime Hospital bleeding from my nose for 30 hours! In a split second my life had changed the evening before and just as I began my supper, blood started pouring out of my nose. The hospital put inflated balloons up both nostrils, the bleeding subsided after 24 hours and eventually I returned to life here in the cathedral.
Such experiences teach us how fragile and tenuous is our hold on life and particularly in being in control.
On this day, January 1st, when the world in its secular calendar celebrates the notional possibilities of a new year with its connotations of a new start and a new way of living, the Church in her wisdom celebrates the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.
It seems an odd alternative but was originally chosen as a diversion from the licentious revelries of the pagans!!!
On this eighth day of Christmas, within the Jewish tradition Jesus was circumcised as an outward sign of a man's participation in Israel's covenant with God. At the same time the child would be given his name and our Lord was named Joshua in Hebrew (Jesus in Greek) meaning ‘the Lord is salvation’ – the name told to Mary by the angel.
Our name is powerful and precious and as we go through life it is the most public expression of our intimate self and personality. Although other people around us may share the same name, nevertheless it is somehow a unique and indelible expression of who we are.
And yet in the main we do not choose our name: our parents do this and we carry their choice throughout our lives.
At the same time we grow up in a world of language where everything is defined and described by words and sounds.
We rely on this common language in order to manage the world and engage in relationships.
Just imagine what would happen if we lost language: our world would literally collapse around us. If we could no longer communicate with one another, we would no longer live, but only exist and I wonder for how long.
When I have been on holiday abroad in land where I have a very limited and basic grasp of the language, I always realise how disconnected I am from living at ease and at depth with the locals and in their culture.
With no language at all, life as know it would be cast adrift – and a chaos, frustration and descent into savagery would ensue.
So language and names are intrinsic to our humanity and understanding of life.
It is so easy to take them for granted.
Yet right at the outset of the Bible story, Adam is given the responsibility by God to name the world around him. It is a partnership of creative power with God and we arrogantly forget this privilege when we turn our backs on God and rely only on ourselves.
In one sense that is precisely the temptation of a new year and its traditional resolutions.
We think that a new calendar might enable us to try again on our own to be better.
In fact without God we can achieve nothing lasting for it is God’s language that we need to learn to speak in terms of peace and justice, forgiveness, humility and toleration.
It make look on the surface to a materially obsessed humanity that we can make things better and achieve lasting happiness and fulfilment yet we repeat the same mistakes in every generation.
It is the name of Jesus alone that delivers us from ourselves and leads us by grace.
So how can this be?
The Old Testament reading from the Book of Numbers ends thus:
So shall they put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
God’s name is dynamic; it is creative and redemptive.
Just as we have named the world around us, so does God – and his name is neither given nor chosen by us – it is mystery and gift.
That is why Mary treasured the words of the shepherds as they related the message of the angel and worshipped the new born Christ – and then she pondered them in her heart.
The mystery and gift needs time, reflection and interior reception.
These are alien to our consumer society and self-centred egos.
God’s name takes our power away and replaces it with his.
The circumcision and naming of Jesus consecrated him as a human child but it also consecrated the world and you and me with the potential of divinity.
It is covenant that binds creation with the creator and humanity with its redeemer.
And covenant living lies at the heart of Christianity and is the only resolution that we need to make.
Without this, there can be no peace, no justice, no forgiveness.
So what of this New Year?
Politics and economics need to be pursued within the responsibility and commitment of faith, a faith that is open, loving, imaginative, consistent and above all formed from and through God.
The great weakness of self-help, entrepreneurism, the free market and personal freedom is that it obliterates the name of God, the holy name that empowers all our naming, relationships and covenants.
Christianity needs to lead as well as serve our society and it can only do this if we capture the spiritual imagination of the British people.
The assumptions of the past cannot carry us. The appeal to tradition will only work if it is a living and vital tradition, reworked, represented and above all renewed.
Change must not be feared but be relied upon to carry the energies of the spiritual life.
This is what today’s readings teach us.
St Paul takes up the newness, vitality and glory of the old covenant relationship and sees that we as God’s people are no longer slaves but children and heirs.
The Shepherds return to their flocks but they do so “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”
I am delighted to be here and not in hospital this New Year’s Day but I have learnt that my assumptions, expectations and indeed my certainties are fragile and my only hope and trust must and can be in God alone.
And so to end: the incarnation promises us the presence of God in the fullness of our humanity – as we begin a new year, may we be marked by our humour and an infectious joy.
We need to laugh, so listen to these two Christmas letters to remind us of the perspective that gives us humility, joy and the lightness of heaven in full measure.
Having failed to keep abreast of the social calendar I was baffled by an aisle in our local Tesco dedicated to Seasonal Toilet Rolls. What else have I missed?
Are class sizes on the increase? In this year’s Nativity play, my niece Lydia will take the role of a blade of grass.
Whatever the name given to a lavatory paper roll or a child actor in the Nativity of Jesus, may the Holy Name of Jesus bring us joy in believing and a very Happy New Year!