Friday, December 31, 2010

Feast of Your Holy Name

New Year’s Eve Vigil / Holy Name
Numbers 6.22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21
Friday, December 31, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

In September of 1974, I began a trip down the slippery slope of multiple identities. No, I wasn’t trying to evade the law. I was beginning intermediate school and was immediately confronted with the issue of my identity. Up to that point, I had always gone by my middle name. But intermediate school would be different. It was a lot bigger than elementary school, and there were multiple classes to attend. Class registration information was computerized and the class rolls for all six of my classes said I was Michael Fincher. So, on day one of intermediate school, I had to decide how to deal with my identity. Do I go through the hassle of correcting six teachers and who knows how many administrators and run the risk of things getting all confusing because Michael wanted to be called Kevin, or do I just make life easier on everyone else and agree to be called Michael? I opted for the latter, and from that moment on, assumed dual identities – Kevin in family situations, and Michael in school and other public situations.

Things got even more complicated as time went by, so that the contexts in which I was known by one name or the other had changed and, in some cases, blurred together. At times, I can’t even keep track of who some people know me as. But what I have discovered is that, even though I am the same person and am used to going by two different names, those names seem to convey separate identities. This is very apparent to me on those rare occasions when those who know Kevin intersected with those who know Michael. It just doesn’t sound or feel right when someone who knows me as Kevin tries to call me Michael, or vice versa. It is in those moments that I am most aware that a name is more than a descriptor to identify an individual, but actually conveys some sense of identity. This was reinforced when a parishioner and I were recently talking about names and he said that I am definitely a Michael and not a Mike. The identity conveyed by “Michael” was more in keeping with who he perceived me to be, whereas “Mike” did not.

The understanding of names and naming practices varies greatly by culture. Some cultures name children after living relatives or ancestors. Others prefer to use names from the Bible. In other cultures, the parents indicate their hopes for the child’s future or the qualities they hope the child will possess in the name they give. But suffice it to say that most parents, regardless of culture, give great thought to, even agonize over, just the right name for their newborns. Such is the importance of name.

And some cultures even use the addition or change of name to mark some significant events. For example, it is not uncommon for Roman Catholics on the occasion of baptism or confirmation to add a new middle name, that of a favored saint. My guess is that the name is intended to convey some quality of the saint the person hopes to emulate in his or her new life. More obvious is the practice in some monastic orders that when a monk or nun professes life vows, he or she takes on a new name, generally that of a saint, as a sign of renunciation of the former way of life and the establishment of a new identity within the monastic community. Yet again, the importance of name as an indication of identity.

This evening, we commemorate the Feast of the Holy Name, which is tomorrow. As stated in the last verse of our Gospel reading, “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” (Lk 2.21). In the Jewish tradition, while the mother gives birth, it is the father who names the child at the ceremony of circumcision, which happens on the eighth day following the child’s birth. In the act of naming, the father gives a sign that the child belongs to him, is a member of his family and an heir to the family’s legacy. Now in the case of Jesus, we have a slight anomaly. It is not Joseph who chose the baby’s name. Remember that it was an angel who announced to Joseph that the child would be called Jesus. So, it was really God who named his son. Joseph was merely serving as a proxy in the naming ceremony.

But in reality, Jesus was doubly blessed. He received, in a way, a double identity, at his naming. God had chosen the name Jesus. Therefore, in naming his son, God had made the sign that this child was indeed his son, of whom God would later proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.13). But in making the public proclamation of the child’s name, Joseph was taking on the earthly role of father, proclaiming that Jesus was his son, and that he would raise him as his own – caring for him, protecting him, guiding him into manhood.

So in this naming ceremony, Jesus effectively received two identities – that conferred by his true father and the one who gave him the name Jesus, the identity as the son of God, Messiah-to-be; and that conferred by Joseph his human father, as Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter-to-be. In this naming ceremony, Jesus received his identity as being both fully divine and fully human. And in this naming ceremony, an indication of his purpose was revealed, for the meaning of the name Jesus is “God has saved.” So in Jesus’ case, the naming ceremony we commemorate conveys a wealth of information about who this child is.

Most of us probably did not go through any type of elaborate naming ceremony. Chances are, when we were born, a nurse asked our parents what our name was to be, and that is what showed up on our birth certificate. No pomp and circumstance involved; although, considerable thought probably went into the name selection prior to our birth. Nonetheless, that name conferred on us at the time of our birth became our identity and will continue to define who we are for the rest of our life.

But as Christians, most of us do eventually participate in ritual that is specifically intended to signify, establish, and proclaim an identity – the sacrament of baptism. In this sacrament, we are named and marked as Christ’s own forever. As we go through the rite of baptism, we recognize that our identity is changed. We renounce our own sinfulness. We turn to Jesus Christ, putting our trust in his grace and love, promising to follow and obey him. As we go into the water of baptism, we die to self, to our old way of life, to our old identity. As we rise out of the water, we put our past behind us and are born to a new and eternal life, to new identity, in Christ. And then the community welcomes us into the household of God – both the Body of Christ of which we are now a part, and the local faith community where our life as a new Christian continues to be formed, where we continue to live out our calling as Christian.

Through the sacrament of baptism, through our incorporation into this faith tradition, we are effectively given a new name. By accepting us into the Body of Christ, into his body, Jesus shares his name with us. Through him, we are given the name Christian. And just as in the Jewish tradition, in the act of being by and for him, Christ who gives us that name is giving a sign that we belong to him, that we are a member of his family and an heir to his legacy. And equally important is the fact that the name conferred upon us, that of Christian, conveys something of our identity – a very important part of our identity. That identity is that we promise to live in accordance with God’s laws and Christ’s teachings. And that identity carries with it the promise that God through Jesus Christ will care for us, and that we are heirs to his kingdom.

While it may only be coincidental that the Feast of the Holy Name happens to be New Year’s Day, maybe there is a lesson to be had in this timing nonetheless. At this time of year, as we prepare to say farewell to the old year and welcome in a new one, many people make resolutions for changes or betterment in the new year. Maybe the only resolution that is needed or is of any real importance is to be true to that identity extending from the Feast of the Holy Name. On this day, Jesus was given his name, establishing his identity. And he has shared his name with us, thereby sharing his and establishing our identity. If we live up to that, no other resolutions are needed and everything else should take care of itself.

Happy New Year and Blessed Feast of your Holy Name.

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