our name is “Christian”

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 2.15-21 and Galatians 4.4-7, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Holy Name, January 1, 2017

“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus.”

circumcision-of-jesus-1503-mariotto-albertinelli-october-1474-november-1515-uffizi-gallery-florence-italy

In Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.[1] Eight days later, following tradition, he was circumcised, bearing on his body the mark of God’s ancient covenant with Abraham, the outward and visible sign that he was a member of a people. Also, in accord with the custom of many ancient peoples who conferred names upon their children to indicate the roles they would play in the life of their societies, this child was called “Jesus”, the outward and hearable sign of his life’s labor. Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew, Joshua, and the Aramaic, Jeshua, means, “God is salvation” or more succinctly, “God saves.”

Thus, the angel Gabriel’s prophetic word to Mary was fulfilled: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”[2]

This Feast of the Holy Name, coming on the first day of the calendar year, reminds us who we are and whose we are. We, children of God, belong to God as revealed in Jesus and in his prophetic life of love and justice. A life of compassion for all without condition and a life of challenge to the comfortably self-satisfied to act on behalf of the marginalized and disenfranchised.

So, we can understand why in our practice of baptism, the rite of initiation into the church, the community of Jesus’ followers, only the first name of the one to be baptized is spoken; never the surname of one’s earthly family. The reason (historically well known that it went without saying, now, long left unsaid, not well known) is that in baptism one is given a new surname of the universal, spiritual, and eternal family into which one is adopted by God through the Spirit: “Christian.” (So, the Apostle Paul testifies, “God sent his Son…so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”)

In baptism, one is christened. Named for Christ, who we are bidden not so much to worship, that is, stand by or sit back and adore him, for he, in saving us, has done it all and there’s nothing more we need do, but rather to follow, to continue his life and labor. As he was and is, as he did and does, we, bearing his name, are to be and do in the world.

My sainted Baptist grandmother, Audia Roberts, often said to me, “Remember your name.” She was referring neither to my familial surname, Abernathy, nor the name she bore and bestowed as my middle name, Roberts, but rather my baptismal name, Christian. She desired that I remain ever mindful of whom I represented in the world, whose life I was to reflect, whose labor I was to do. (Honestly compels the confession that I failed more than I succeeded. Still do! Nevertheless, as then, so now, the call abides!)

The words of our Baptismal Covenant express what this life and labor, our life and labor look like:[3] Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

After eight days, the child was circumcised and named Jesus. In this, may we hear our calling in this New Year. That our minds and hearts, souls and spirits be circumcised. That we allow ourselves to be cut to the quick, cut to the core of ourselves with an awareness of our name, Christian, and its meaning and, thus, the proclamation of our purpose. That we are to have compassion for all people and to challenge the comfortable to care for all even, especially when, most uncomfortably, it is we ourselves whom we must confront.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: Circumcision of Jesus (1503), Mariotto Albertinelli (1474-1515), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 2.7, paraphrased.

[2] Luke 1.31

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, pages 304-305; my emphases.

what’s my name?

Biblea biblical reflection, based on Luke 2.15-21, on the 8th day of Christmas and the 1st day of the new year

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus.

The Circumcision of Jesus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1605

Luke continues his telling of the Christmas story. In Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. Eight days later, following Jewish custom and ceremony, the identity of that son was conferred. He was circumcised, bearing on his body the mark of God’s ancient covenant with Abraham, the outward and visible sign that he was a member of a people. He also was given his name, the outward and hearable sign of his life’s purpose. Jesus. The Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua and the Aramaic Jeshua, meaning “God is salvation” or, simply, “God saves.”

On many Christian calendars, this eighth day of Christmas and this New Year’s Day is called Holy Name. Doubtless, countless are the interpretations of what this day means. So, speaking always only for myself…

Holy Name reminds me who I am, one created by God, and, therefore, whose I am, one belonging to God. The God made known to me in Jesus’ prophetic life of love and justice. A life of compassion for the poor, care for the downtrodden, comfort for the afflicted, and challenge to the comfortable (especially when it is I myself whom I must confront!) to act on behalf of the marginalized and disenfranchised. A life I am bidden not only to worship, to reverence, but also to follow, to continue. A life, as Jesus is, so I, in his name, am to be in the world.

I’ve claimed the name “Christian” for most of my life. Given what it meant originally, to be named as Christ to a life of service, it still serves well. Yet given the bigotry and brutality, the intolerance and malice perpetrated in the name of Jesus by myriad Christians from the first century unto this day the name for many evokes fear and anger, provokes division and derision. Thus, in this coming year, it is up to me, with God’s help, as best I can, as much as I can, where I am, and with those I serve to follow in will and word and deed the Jesus of justice, the Lord of love and liberation. For “Christian” is my name.

 

Illustration: The Circumcision of Jesus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1605