The feast of the naming and the circumcision of Jesus – 2017
‘And you shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’
Why are we given the names we are? Usually nowadays for no better reason than these are names our parents like. But that is no bad reason – for our name always reminds us of our parentage – those through whom we have come into the world. The desire to change one’s name – to name oneself is not something we should encourage. For how would we name ourselves aright?
I know that for many years I struggled with my own name – I was named after an uncle who died in infancy and it seemed to me that everyone called ‘Eric’ was OLD. It was only in my later years when the French footballer Eric Cantona strode the stage of my beloved Leeds United that I began to think differently about my name. Latterly I have come to understand it as the most significant link to my parents, of blessed memory – they named me.
But in earlier days I began to wear it with a little more pride as I learnt it was an ancient Norse name given to Kings – most significantly Eric the Red, or Eric Bloodaxe 🙂 All of a sudden I had left the arena of old men in flat caps and had entered the stage of Norse Saga and myth 🙂 Of course, having the name Eric neither made me an axe wielding Viking, nor a great footballer . . . and one feels for those children named in a prophetic sense – Grace, Charity, or as many of the boys at the Catholic high school where I taught were named, Christian. It seemed to have the opposite effect!
Today in our gospel we hear how ‘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.’ Jesus is given his name in the prophetic sense – in response to the words of the angel to Mary and Joseph he is named Jesus.
The name Jesus was not all that unusual amongst Jewish boys of the time. In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, it would have been Jeshua – another form of the name Joshua, which literally means ‘The Lord Saves’. A name which linked Jesus to God’s actions in bringing his people into the promised land – a name with close associations with the prophetic tradition. Jesus is of course proceeded by John the Baptist, who is ‘the elijah who is to come’ Elijah – My God is The LORD! Elijah’s successor is Elisha – Literally ‘My God Saves!’ or God is Salvation! In other words Jesus as he is named is part of the long story of God’s people – and is circumcised on the eighth day as required by the Law of Moses.
And the name, given by the angels to Mary and Joseph means – ‘The LORD Saves’ for as the angel said to Joseph – ‘you shall name him Jesus, for he shall save His people from their sins’
Matthew links this announcement to the word spoken through Isaiah – ‘and they shall name him Emmanuel – which means God is with us’ The name Jesus is given for he shall be with his people, to save them from their sins. He comes to be with His people, to save them from their sins.
When we ponder, or utter the name of Jesus, we are reminding ourselves of our need to be saved from our sins. Why does God send Jesus to identify with his people? That he might take their sin upon him and save them from it.
And it must be said, that this is an element of the Christmas story which in the carols excepted seems to be lost from the telling. Jesus comes to be with his people, yes,
To save them from their sins? . . . this element gets lost in the telling or has been of late.
A few months ago I was with someone who asked as it were to the wind, ‘what has happened to Sin and Salvation in this Church’ We had been sat through hours and hours of this and that or the other seemingly pressing matters at General Synod, but not one word about the heart of our Faith, or better the Reason for the coming of Jesus amongst us, to save his people from their sins. And the question was a good one. Why in this age has the centre of the Gospel of Jesus – the one who shall save his people from their sins – disappeared pretty much from view?
Well the reasons behind this are multifaceted – yet a not unimportant part of the reason is the collapse of Community in this day and age. When you are living in such proximity to others that you are aware that your life depends on them, and theirs on you, not just in extreme situations, but for day to day living – the breaking of relationship which is the fruit of sin is of utmost importance – Life or Death in some circumstances.
Yet, ‘Relationship’ has become such a light word in our culture – meaning less and less. Yesterday I was speaking with a young man, what we are calling a ‘millenial’ – he spoke of how ‘Trust’ was not part of the meaning of modern friendship. ‘Nowadays one knows that people are only friends until something more interesting comes along’ – a dynamic I have seen worked out countless times in the life of those children I know well. We have fewer and fewer strong connections – and thus less to break – or to use the language of our tradition, less obvious Sin.
My grandparents grew up in tightly knit societies where one knew ones place – and more, ones obligations to others, not least the poor. Held in place in this way, Sin was often a public matter. Now we live lives with no local consequences – our purchasing decisions don’t seem to affect anyone in our immediate circle. Our lives are lives of disengagement – lived out virtually – disconnected. Sin is alien to our consciousness . . .
And in this arena of nothing really mattering, not only Sin seems to disappear, but also Jesus himself. We have less time for him as Saviour, rather he becomes a wise teacher, in a Private spirituality – our faith no longer specifically about Him. For it is not only Sin and Salvation which has disappeared from the life of the Church, but ‘Jesus’ is now reduced to a rhetorical tool to justify this or that or the other agenda of our own. His words ‘no one comes to the Father except they come through me’ seems a strange throwback to that age in which Sin and Salvation were what it was all about.
Witness for example the very strange language of our confession from the 1928 prayer book (a watered down version of the 1662 whose name it bears) If we compare it with confessions from ‘A New Zealand Prayer Book’ the language of Sin and Salvation are much more to the front. They are a cry for HELP! We are in big trouble – Sin threatens to overwhelm us! Save us! Jesus, Save us!!
And of course – this is the Prayer he LONGS to answer – for He Is the One Named Jesus – so named for he shall save his people from their sins. This is why He Came – that we might be reconciled to God in and through Him. It is of course the meaning of Confessing our Sins – it is the meaning of Our Baptism, It is the meaning of the Eucharist. All of which focus on Jesus – and Who he is – the one who shall save his people from their sins.
We are still in the season of Christmas – a season of 12 days in which amidst the feasting we meditate upon the Gift of Jesus to us. Let us take time to mediate upon the Name of Jesus – so named because he shall save his people from their sins.
You and I know each other by our names – let us in the same way Know Jesus.