A reflection for Holy Name, Year A prepared for Red Door Healing Service at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Friday, December 30, 2016
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 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.
This Sunday, we will celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name which on the church calendar is the day when this tiny baby, born to Mary, was given the name that would define his life on this earth. This holy day is celebrated on January 1 every year, eight days after Christmas. But this year the Feast of the Holy Name falls on a Sunday, so we celebrate it in our public worship in a way that we don’t always take the time to acknowledge. As is our custom at Friday’s Red Door service, we always use the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel as our reflection. So, we are reminded by today’s lesson for the Feast of the Holy Name that this incarnate Jesus whose birth we have just celebrated is both fully human, and fully divine. Last week, we talked about The Word who became flesh, and who dwells with us. This week, the scripture that we read together tells us even more specifically about the power of one particular kind of word: the power of a name.
Names are important…so I wonder, do you know where your name came from? Do you know the story of how you were named? If you have named someone else, how did you choose that name? Do you have a name that you try to live in to, or live up to? Pause to think for a minute about your name, and what it says about you.
The name “Jesus” is from the Hebrew Joshua, or Yehoshuah, “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh will save.” This name given to infant Jesus was already sourced in divine mystery and future expectation. Luke tells us a bit earlier in his Gospel the story of how Mary came to know this name during her pending motherhood. It was her first divine glimpse into who this child was destined to be:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:26-33)
On a first reading of today’s Gospel, it might seem like the circumcision and naming of Jesus are simply cultural and religious actions of an obedient and observant Mary and Joseph. But, when we consider today’s lesson together with this angelic visit we begin to hear and see that there is so much more to this story. The language of the story Luke is telling in his Gospel suggests that the unfolding of the story of God’s incarnate and redeeming loving was overflowing, even from this first encounter before Mary had even conceived this child. As we celebrate the feast of the holy name, it is remarkable that even the angel in this story is given a name: “Gabriel.” And we are told, very clearly, the name of this beloved child of God who is being invited to become an integral part of God’s divine plan: her name is “Mary.” Names are important; they give us substance and individuality. They are a recognition that we are invited, known, loved, respected. In this story, names heighten our awareness that these individual lives matter…that our individual lives matter…as a part of God’s intimate knowledge of us even within the vastness of the divine imagination. This story is as real and specific as our stories: we are known and beloved of God by name.
In both passages from Luke, we are also told that Mary is pondering: first, she ponders the angel’s greeting and intention. She takes in the power and significance of this divine visit, and having done so, she willingly agrees to participate. Then, in today’s Gospel passage, we hear her pondering again all the words that she has treasured up during these nine months of expectant pregnancy and throughout this time of the birth of this child: from the declarations of the shepherds, the prophecies of angels and the prayerful, holy expressions of others who have come to kneel before this tiny child that she has nurtured into being during these past nine months. She ponders in her head and in her heart what these experiences mean because, like us, she isn’t able to fully grasp and comprehend the meaning of the circumstances in which she finds herself. That takes time; that takes prayerful pondering:
“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
When I ponder the words of the stories of Christmas, I always come back to this phrase. As a mother, there are images and words that I hold in the sacred space of my own heart. There are moments that I knew were important when they first happened, but the real significance of them doesn’t become clear until much later. The same is true in this life of faith that I lead, and the journey that I am walking now as a child of God, discerning and forming to respond to the call God has set upon my life. I hold these things that happen to me, and I ponder them. Usually, pondering for me happens in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep, or in the early hours of the morning when I first wake. At those moments, sometimes it feels as if it is just me, and God. At those moments, the most treasured moments and memories of my life feel like they are touchable, as if I could reach out and grasp them. Sometimes, in those moments where I am profoundly still, I listen deeply and I ponder.
This week, as I have pondered, I have thought of Mary: visited by angels, blessed by her cousin Elisabeth, overwhelmed by the glory of God acting in her life, led on donkey across deserts, giving birth in a barn, struggling to make sense of shepherds following a star to find this tiny baby who she was caring for as best she could under challenging circumstances. I imagine her pondering as she looked to the bright star of the heavens; as she looked into the eyes of her newborn child, as she nursed him, swayed him and soothed him to sleep. As she did all these profoundly motherly acts of caregiving, she was treasuring the moments and pondering the mystery and meaning of the words she had been given, wondering how he would live into this holy name spoken by angels. I think about the ways in which the holy name, which was placed officially on Jesus’ life during the rites of initiation, marked her own journey of faith. Eight days after he was born, the name of Jesus resounded fully with both humanity and divinity, each time speaking a window into time and space and meaning. So deeply intimate as a mother’s love for her child, so vastly divine as to be “the Son of the Most High.” Of course Mary treasured these words, and pondered them in her heart.
Pondering is a holy space.
When you find yourselves pondering the past, or considering the meaning of your present circumstances, or pondering what may still be unfolding for the future: remember, pondering is Godly work. Pondering can be a prayer, where we open ourselves to God. Like Mary, we ponder. And, in our pondering, God meets us there in that most holy space where we are known, loved, and treasured through the holy name of Jesus Christ, who abides with us.