Here is a sermon of mine for the feast of the Holy Name (aka the Circumcision of Christ) from when it fell on a Sunday, back in 2006.
Merry Christmas (today concludes the octave) and Happy Circumcision everyone! Today was historically known as the feast of the Circumcision of Christ. In the first draft of this message, I opened a foreword that included a few circumcision jokes, but after some consideration, I thought that might be a bit of a stretch, so I cut that part off.
Instead, let us begin with some of the history and meaning of the practice. As Jewish boys were circumcised on the eighth day after birth, and today is the eighth day after Christmas Day, or the feast of the Nativity, today we commemorate the circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is called the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus in the 1979 Prayer Book because the naming of the child was an important part of the ceremony. Beginning with the new liturgical kalendar promulgated in 1969, our Roman Catholic brethren observe this day as the Solemnity of Mary, the Theotokos, or “Mother of God.”
Remember that the Bible was first written in a very different social context. It was a context in which the large, extended family defined the world of a given individual. The larger family—the tribe, or clan—was a man or woman’s primary identity. That dictated where they would live, how they would work, and whom they might marry.
Often, people would bear some mark indicating that tribal family identity. A nation in the ancient world was largely a network of such families, as the nation of Israel comprised twelve tribes named for Jacob’s twelve sons. Unifying each family was the bond of covenant, the wider culture’s idea of what constituted human relations, rights, duties, and loyalties.
Circumcision was practiced by different cultures in the ancient world. Jews and Arabs practice it as a part of their religious tradition, which is traced back to Abraham, who was instructed to use it as a sign of the covenant which would identity and shape the great family that God would form out of his descendants. Circumcision was practiced by Israel as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. St. Paul makes clear that through Jesus, we become adopted children in God’s great tribal family and thereby heirs of the covenant promises that were first given to Abraham. We are "grafted onto the tree," as Paul put it, through our baptism, which thoroughly unites us to Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts, the early Church came to that realization. Circumcision was no longer required of converts because Jesus Christ himself already fulfilled all our obligations under the law in his own flesh.
If the infant Jesus could have been asked, “Why is this being done, if you are perfect already as God’s only-begotten Son?” as he was similarly asked before being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus might also have responded on that occasion, “Let it be done, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
In the traditional text of the Great Litany, one of the petitions is: “By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by the thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord deliver us.” In the 1979 edition of the Prayer Book, a more interpretive petition is used: “By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by the thy holy Nativity and submission to the Law; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, Good Lord deliver us.” Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses on our behalf—something we could never do.
Remember that the theme of identity and the naming of the child was a key feature of the rite of circumcision in Jewish practice. The choice of a name can be a most powerful gift. Certainly, Madison Avenue has learned the power of a name. And most of us come to understand that power as children just as well as any advertising firm. We can see the reaction on the faces of children when a famous or powerful name is dropped in a conversation. Do you know the power of a name?
One time, I was talking with my fourth grade class about the unlimited power of God. I gave the example that God could turn this whole school building into Chuck E. Cheeses’ if he wanted to. You should have seen how big their eyes got when I mentioned that name. Your local used car salesman also knows the power of a name. Sometimes it is the main selling point. “But you have to remember, this is a . . . Ford, Honda, or BMW, etc..” If that doesn’t work, he might accidentally mention the name of some famous person who was the previous owner.
A name says a lot about someone. Most names mean something. Learning a name is part of getting to know someone. My name Timothy is a Greek name meaning “honoring God.” I try to live by the implication of that name.
All those who are familiar with Pilgrim’s Progress have no trouble remembering that the pilgrim’s name throughout the book is “Christian.” However, many people don’t remember his original name, which is stated briefly in the allegory. In that scene, the pilgrim is conversing with a porter who says, “What is your name?” The pilgrim responds, “My name is now Christian, but my name at the first was Graceless.” Of course, the same could be said about all of us who have been baptized in the name of the Trinity and are now called Christian. Pilgrim’s Progress is really a story about all of us. We all started out named “Graceless.” Do you know the power of a name?
In the church, we use names that come from being a part of God’s family. Many Christians call each other “brother” and “sister,” especially in religious orders. Abbesses are called “Mother” because they model for us the Virgin Mary, who was given to the Christian community as Mother by Jesus himself. The Church herself is called "the Bride of Christ" and "the Body of Christ." We can understand why we call our priests and bishops “Father.” It is because they fulfill the role of Christ in our communities, and Christ is the perfect image of the Father.
Moses asked God for his Name . . . “Who shall I say has sent me?” The Lord answered “I AM what I AM.” This was a simple kind of answer, but also a revelation of the divine name YHWH—the root word in Hebrew for "being" or "existence." The Lord was telling his people, "I am the living God, I am the God who exists. I am not like the idols of the nations—gods of clay and stone. I am the one who made heaven and earth—all that there is." Some scholars think it could be hifil causative form. That is, “I cause things to be; I am the Creator.”
Do you know the power of a name? The Name of God was treated with the utmost reverence in the Jewish faith. Reverence for God’s name is the third of the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vein.” In order to fulfill that commandment, Jews eventually decided not to speak God’s name at all.
I remember once in seminary we took a field trip to Chicago to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. It was striking to look at these manuscripts which were a part of the library of a Jewish sect from shortly before the time of Christ’s birth. I noticed, looking at the pages, that the Name of God was written in a different manner—it was above the text. The Name of God was written each time in much larger type and, unlike the rest of the Hebrew text, it was written in the older pre-Phonecian alphabet. When it was read aloud, the reader would not pronounce that name when he came to it. Instead, the reader was instructed to substituted the word Adonai ("Lord") or Hashem ("the Name"). Do you know the power of a name?
That was the reverence of our Jewish forebears for the sacred name of God. The name of Jesus was given to Mary and Joseph by word of the angel Gabriel. The name “Jesus” has a meaning as well; it means “YHWH is salvation.” Jesus is the Greek form of the name. If you’ve seen the Passion of the Christ, you may have noticed the disciples calling Jesus “Yeshua” in the native language. In Jesus’ day, they spoke Aramaic, which was a colloquial version of Hebrew. As you may have guessed, Yeshua is the same as the Hebrew name Joshua. We said before that a name tells us a great deal about a person.
Consider for a moment the parallels between Jesus and Joshua of the Old Testament. Joshua was the successor to Moses—the one to whom Moses entrusted the care of God’s people. Joshua led them through the Jordan river (it’s no accident that Jesus was baptized there) and into the Promised Land (the kingdom of God). It is at the precious name of Jesus that “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord” at the last judgment. Jesus is a name of hope and power. It is a name we can depend upon.
While God’s wisdom and love are spread abroad, there is grace and salvation in none other than this holy child—Jesus, Son of God, Son of Mary. Do you know the power of a name? Consider the holy Name of Jesus. Do you know the power of Jesus’ name in your own life?
In the Acts of the Apostles 4:12 we read, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” If we have put all our hope in Jesus, we have put it in the right place, for “YHWH is salvation.”