Holy Name by The Rev. Ken Powell


Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

Good morning friends,

And greetings to each of you on this first day of the New Year!

Let me begin by acknowledging what a great blessing it is for me to be here with you today and in the days to come! For Karen and myself this new year has the feel of a new life. We are grateful for the guiding hand of the Spirit in our journey to find a home here in Portland…and so we have…in every sense of the word.

Although there are many among you that I have not yet met, whose name I do not know, I believe I do know something deeply personal about each of you nevertheless that encourages me to call you my friend. Your presence here is an affirmation that the Lord has indeed “put” his name on you and “planted” in your heart the love of him whom we know as our Savior. Whatever else we may or may not have in common this is fertile soil within which deep and lasting relationships can thrive and salvation derive its meaning. This, I think, is what the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is intended to convey to us…although the scripture passage we have today has also been used to support a very different message in the past under a very different name and has had lasting consequences as well which we continue to live with today.

In the dim past-about fifteen hundred “new year’s” ago- the church in Gaul was concerned about festivities of another sort-that is to say- riotous pagan rituals associated with the New Year celebration. In their judgment, the church fathers thought the best way to address this problem was by providing an alternative day of fasting in conjunction with a newly authorized Feast of the Circumcision-since, I suppose, there is nothing quite like contemplating Jesus’ circumcision to quell every sort of appetite. They did this by contriving an assumed relationship between Jesus’ circumcision and the Roman New Year celebration on the flimsy basis that both occurred eight days after his birth. One would think that St. Paul had adequately disposed of the notion of circumcision as being necessary or helpful in the life of the church but evidently not.

While I’m convinced that this was a poor and inappropriate strategy in the first place I am also convinced that more importantly it distorted a crucial point Luke was trying to make which had nothing to do with suppressing folk traditions or excess of any sort. Sadly, it is the case that the church has often used scripture for reasons other than that intended by the author. Luke was interested in the circumcision of Jesus because it was a direct and objective sign to everyone of the lineage of Jesus, body, mind and soul all the way back to Abraham and his God. It has been disastrous to miss this point or minimize it – to forget, ignore or deny the fundamental fact that Jesus was and is Jewish in every important way. We cannot truly know Jesus without fully embracing that most formative expression of his identity and every connecting strand of that tradition which is weakened or misused is a loss to the integrity of that identity.

It wasn’t until the new Prayer Book of 1979 that the Episcopal Church corrected the misapplied emphasis on the circumcision of Jesus on New Year’s Day by adopting instead Luke’s actual emphasis  the naming of Jesus. Had we been contemplating the Holy Name for fifteen centuries instead of circumcision we might have come to know Jesus better and done less harm in His name.

But, as the saying goes, “What’s in a name?”  In this day and age it is common to choose the name of a child because we simply like the sound of it. Or we think it is clever or trendy. We seem to be losing the practice of naming someone after a family member or to honor someone we admire. Our names go on ID cards and name tags but don’t have much of an inherent meaning in and of themselves. They don’t tell us much about our past or point us toward a future. We are “free agents”- no longer bound to a tradition,  place or even family. Perhaps that is part of the reason we so desperately try to “make a name for ourselves”, why celebrity status is so sought after and valued, why personal “branding” is an accepted norm.

In former times this was not the case. Names were given because of qualities or attributes that were either observed in you or expected of you. Names had the power to identify something essential about who people were and how they were to be known. From the beginning in biblical culture names had sacred significance.  Once revealed God’s name was considered  too sacred to be spoken. The name Adam meant something akin to “the human formed from the red earth” and his capacity to name the animals of God’s creation established humankind’s dominion. Eve was “the living one”. The names Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Moses all addressed their character and their role in the biblical story.

If we are to recover the significance of these names and understand what they are telling us we need to be attentive in ways that have become unfamiliar-most particularly attentive to “the name that is above every name”- The Holy Name of Jesus which in the Hebrew “Yehoshuah” means “Yahweh is salvation.” In that name the beginning and the end of our faith journey are bound together.

 Luke reminds us that this name was “given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” and shows us that his naming fulfills and confirms the word of God delivered by the angel Gabriel to Mary.  This name “planted” in the heart of Mary was “to be the sign of our salvation” and to name the source of that salvation. By this name we are called to attend to every word and every act of the One who bore the name. By His name we are shown our need for salvation and how we might hope to attain it. That at least is what I can glean from pondering these things in my heart as Mary did.

But somewhere in my own dim past the idea was laid down that salvation was the gift of eternal life as a reward for believing the right things in the right way with the right people. Salvation was about being personally saved from eternal damnation etc. etc.  and everyone “left behind” on the terrible “Judgment Day” was only getting what they deserved. You know the awful litany. As someone has put it salvation in that tradition is about having “fire insurance” or an “evacuation plan” but offers nothing for this suffering world but abandonment by a supposedly just and merciful God. I’ve been trying to root those ideas and all their companions out of my damaged head and heart for years and years. I’ve realized that much of that work involved discarding what salvation isn’t but hadn’t given enough thought to what it might be.

I have no neat, airtight, theological argument to make but I do believe that Jesus had “the words of eternal life” and if I abide in them something of God’s Kingdom will be revealed to me and that is salvation. I believe that healing of every kind has a place in that kingdom. That prayer, sacrament and service done in Jesus’ name have the power to bring God’s saving love into every atom of the creation and all its creatures. I believe that deliverance from sin and evil, reconciliation, forgiveness, and every simple kindness are true expressions of an eternal love present here and now whatever else may follow and that is salvation. I am content to say with Rumi “The one who brought me here will have to take me home.”  For myself I do not aspire to explain the salvation revealed in the Holy Name of Jesus but only to listen carefully and draw close to his life, death and resurrection. As one of my teachers has said, “We cannot trust Jesus with our death, if we cannot trust him with our life.”

But whatever salvation may mean for me in my personal life it is most importantly a question of what it means for the society in which we live. A pious life lived amid injustice and violence is a help but it is not enough if the life of Jesus is the measure. Salvation is of the nature of wholeness and transformation and relationship. It is about community, about liberation, about gratitude, about doing our part to bring the reign of God here on earth as it is in heaven. May this New Year bring each of us closer together in the new life that Jesus has revealed. Blessed be his Name!

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