Sunday, January 1, 2017

Feast of The Holy Name - January 1, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Feast of The Holy Name - Sunday  January 1,2017 

Br. Robert James Magliula

The ancient Romans had a god of doorways. Janus had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back. He was the god of beginnings as well as endings. He was also the god of transition and change. The month, January, is named after him. So on the threshold of another year, as the vast majority of folks are waking up from last night’s party and switching on parades and football games, we gather this morning to sanctify this transition and to greet this new beginning.

The Church originally designated the observance of the first day of January as a fast day in 567 to counter pagan festivals. This day that celebrates the beginning of a new year has not always been so. Although the Gregorian calendar established January 1 as New Year’s Day as far back as 1582, in England it was not until 1752 that it replaced March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, as the beginning of the new year. January 1 eventually evolved into the feast of the Circumcision or the Holy Name, celebrating the naming of Jesus and his circumcision. In Jewish tradition the law required that boys had to be circumcised on their eighth day as a sign that they belonged to God’s people and that they shared in God’s covenant promises to Israel.

The acts of naming and being named are sacred practices in most faith traditions. Names are important to us—culturally, religiously, and individually. Names can be powerful things, and throughout Scripture God uses names to communicate divine purposes and to mark covenant blessings on those who enter into relationship with God. We’re told that God is the one who gives Jesus his name. And in giving Jesus his name, God is telling us something important about Jesus’ character and the role he will play in the story of God’s love for the world. Jesus was not simply named to establish his cultural heritage as a Palestinian Jew or to differentiate him from others. He was named Jesus to provide us with a beacon to follow and a way for us to move closer to divine goodness, grace, and mercy.

The name Jesus is the Latin form of the Greek, which is the transliteration of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning “God saves.” The name of Jesus is, as today’s collect states, “the sign of our salvation.” Given to us by God, this name is a verbal sacrament, something spoken that conveys to us the grace of God. When we use this name with faith and reverence, it is for us a prayer. Indeed, of all prayers it is the best. No other prayer is so simple. Bernard of Clairveaux wrote, “to praise the Holy Name of Jesus is to receive light, food and medicine for the soul.” Today, on this first day of the new year, we celebrate the fact that God has spoken that name to us, and not just as a word, but also as the Word made flesh. God has spoken the divine name to us as a person. We have been given the gift of a new relationship with God, a first-name relationship that is intimate and immediate.

Christians have our own mark of identity. Our equivalent of circumcision is baptism. We too are named within this formative sacrament, and we declare ourselves united with others of the Body of Christ through the vows of the Baptismal Covenant. In it Jesus connects our humanity to all that is God. It might help us remember the invisible cross on our foreheads at baptism, with a simple but powerful statement: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked and Christ’s own forever.”

The passage from Galatians highlights a change in title that drastically changes our relationship to God. We were once “slaves” but now have been “adopted” and are called God’s children and heirs. In our baptism we were claimed, adopted, forgiven, renewed, strengthened, and made members of the Body of Christ. We have been given names in baptism that identify us as participants in the story of God’s love for the world. The name of Jesus is forever sealed upon our hearts. That name of Jesus within us compels us to work for justice, peace, and love for all. And the name of Jesus gives us the will and the strength to persevere in the ministry of reconciliation.

Just as the ancient Romans felt the need for a god of beginnings, there is within our human nature a deep yearning for new beginnings, and a natural hope that this year will be better than the last. We do not know what it will contain. In this world shattered by violence, in this day plagued by divisiveness and name-calling, the name of Jesus provides an antidote to hatred, a cure for violence, and a medicine for pain. Despite any sense of powerlessness or hopelessness or cynicism we might experience, our purpose in this time of transition is to be agents of the kingdom. Our work today, as Christians and monastics, is to witness to, and to help people discover, that God can still transform.

As we look backward and forward at the same time, an old way is ending and a new one is beginning. The kingdom breaks in where and when it is least expected. It is revealed to shepherds, not to kings, to the poor, not to the rich and the mighty. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, not in Jerusalem or the temple or a palace, but in a stable, wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding box. As we step across the threshold into a new year, perhaps our greatest hope should be that God is not finished with us, that God is still at work in our lives and in the world. The kingdom can come and it will come. Let us pray that God may fill our hearts with joy and hope, save us from our fears and doubts, and give us courage and strength to be instruments of the promised kingdom. +Amen.

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