Today has quite a lot of significance attached to it. In addition to being the first day of a new year, within many traditions including the Anglican Church it is the Feast of the Holy Name, which used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision. It is also the day when the Catholic Church gives honour to Mary as being the Mother of God. As we move from the old year into the new in the midst of all the struggles of our world and of our country, we are invited to turn first towards Jesus in grateful recognition that God is with us in him.
This is the eighth day after Christmas. Eight days after his birth, according to the covenant God made with Abraham so long ago, a Jewish male child was circumcised and publicly named by his parents. Joseph and Mary gave their son the name we know as Jesus, in obedience to the instruction from the angels who prepared them for the event. The Hebrew name Yeshua means “the Lord saves”.
Michael K. Marsh says that names are more than just labels. They can in some way capture and express the essence of a person. When we hear the name of someone we know well, it brings to mind something of their life and way of being.
Michael Marsh suggests the whimsical yet quite evocative example of a rose. What if you said the word “rose” and you were filled with its fragrance? I don’t mean you remembered what a rose smelled like but you actually smelled the rose. What if every time you said the name “rose” you were immersed in a garden of life, beauty and colour? What if you could actually feel the softness of its petals?
Marsh says that is how the Holy Name of Jesus works. Within the name is Jesus’ vocation, his relationship to humanity, and the desire of God. The name “Jesus” tells us that God cares about us, God knows what is happening to us and within us, God is not indifferent but is present in love for us.
According to Marsh, every time we say the name “Jesus” in prayer, we acknowledge our need of God and salvation; we open ourselves to God’s mercy, forgiveness and healing; we remember that God is with us. Every time we say “Jesus”, his response is always the same: “Here I am”.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus grew into his identity and sense of vocation gradually. Over time, he increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people. As he grew to maturity, he was filled with wisdom and God’s favour was with him. According to the book of Hebrews, he became like us in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
I think we too grow into our identity and sense of vocation gradually. We are given times to pause and reflect and acknowledge the ways in which the grace of God has been at work in our lives. As Mary treasured all she saw and heard and pondered it in her heart, turning the events over in her mind and seeking to understand them, we are invited to consider our lives. Each new year is an opportunity to look back and try to discern and recognize what has shifted in us since the previous new year, the better to appreciate the sources of hope in and around us.
How have we grown in our understanding of ourselves and of our lives? How have we come to greater confidence in who we are and what our lives are about? How have we increased our capacity to see those around us as God sees, and so learned to respond more kindly and generously to them? How have we experienced the mercy and grace of a loving God and of God’s people when we have failed to be all that we wanted to be and so disappointed ourselves? Being able to receive such mercy and grace is also an opening to new life.
As the earth makes its way around the sun and returns to its starting point, we might think of it as endless repetition. The sun is also on a journey through space, though, and so the motion of the earth is a spiral around the path of the sun, a movement into the future. Our lives do not circle in endless repetition, but there is always possibility as we seek to follow where Jesus leads. The psalm appointed for today responds in this way:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what are we that you should be mindful of us, the children of mortals, that you should seek us out?
As we begin this new year together, in the midst of the joys and the hardships of life, I leave with you the words of blessing that we heard earlier this morning:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you;
The LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.
Michael K. Marsh’s sermon text can be found here.