Homily for the Feast of the Holy Name
January 1, 2023 (Year A)
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
Happy New Year, Merry Christmas and Blessed Feast of the Holy Name! All of those greetings apply today, this particularly special day where the calendar of our culture intersects with the calendar of the church. Every year on January 1, the liturgical calendar that we follow in The Episcopal Church recognizes the Feast of Holy Name. It doesn’t always fall on a Sunday, though, so that means we often miss the opportunity during our worship together to recognize this particular celebration and its importance in the unfolding of the Christmas story. I want to start with a little bit of learning about this feast, because God’s word is always unfolding for us as our knowledge increases. Then, I want us to think about the meaning and value of names, and especially the name of Jesus, in our lives.
In Luke’s Gospel, we pick up where the Christmas story usually closes. The angels have returned to heaven; the Shepherds have shared the story of their encounter with the heavenly messengers, and Mary and Joseph following the custom of their Jewish heritage go to the Temple on the appointed day (the eighth day after birth) where the ceremonies marking entry into this child’s Jewish faith are affixed: the baby boy is circumcised in a Jewish ritual (brit milah or “bris”) marking his welcome into Jewishness with this sign of the covenant that has been set between God and God’s chosen people. As a part of that ceremony, a name is also affixed to the baby. The name given to this child has been in existence since the Angel Gabriel’s first annunciation: the name we in English say as “Jesus” which is the Hebrew Yeshua or Joshua, which we know both from our biblical stories and linguistically means “to rescue” or “to deliver.” This isn’t an unusual name for a Jewish boy, but it isn’t a family name, either. The Gospel is clear to point out that this name is the one that has come before the physical existence of the child; it is from God, as delivered through the message of the angels.
What I love about this short passage of Luke’s Gospel is that the nativity scene image isn’t frozen in time. All those who were a part of the story are continuing to live into the depths of what it has meant to experience the holy moment of that Silent Night: the Shepherds are praising and glorifying God; Joseph is caring for this child who will be brought to the Temple and welcomed into faith, family and tradition. And Mary is pondering the meaning of all of these things and holding them in her heart. Today, a name is placed on this child, not just any name but a name given from heaven. Here, heaven meets human in all of these things, all of them. The Word becomes Flesh, and even in the rending of human flesh, a heavenly covenant is made known.
We don’t always focus on the human nature of Jesus, but these weeks just post Christmas are filled with them: a baby born in a stable, without home and in the poverty of human existence; the baby’s very human flesh being marked in the ritual of circumcision and then given a human name. Jesus was, after all, a human baby who did all of the growing and crying and developing that human infants do. It isn’t all pretty. At times, as the new parents in this room can attest, it is all pretty messy and smelly and relentless. Aspects of this fleshy humanness in the story make us cringe. In our Christianity, we have too often sanitized the Christmas story and the fleshy, humanness of Jesus’ whole existence on this earth. But this life was the real life that happened in the days, weeks, months and early years of Jesus’ life. It was full of beautiful, messy human, family life with a newborn baby.
It might go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyhow: these attributes of being fully human are not in opposition to God. Fully integrating Jesus’ humanness into the narrative of our salvation doesn’t make Jesus less pure or less holy or any less fully God. These brief glimpses we have in our Holy Scriptures of Jesus’ infancy and childhood remind us of the ordinary, human miracle of the ways our bodies, minds, and souls develop beautifully, evolving in ways that are magnificent with the support and loving care from those who care for us. We are beautifully and wonderfully made, created and loved by God. And so, too, Jesus the newly named baby was beautifully and wonderfully made, raised and cared for in body, taught how to be a human being with an inquiring and discerning mind, and shaped in the faith of his ancestors in Jewish faith, tradition and spiritual practice. Next week, we will celebrate Epiphany on January 6 and the Baptism of Jesus on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which are also beautifully human and fully divine reminders of Jesus’ early life and ministry. But it all began with the faithful walk of faithful people, his human parents Mary and Joseph, who offered thanks to God for the gift that was and is from God and gave him the holy name of Jesus.
So, what is in that holy name for us?
I want you to take a moment, right now. Take a deep breath and think about a time that you reached out in prayer in the name of Jesus. Maybe something was happening in your life that was overwhelming. Maybe you were scared, or a family member was sick or suffering. Imagine that time, when you called out for Jesus.
Maybe even take a moment now, and as you feel led, speak that Holy Name with the same deep longing that you spoke it then.
This is a place filled with the presence of Jesus. So, I want you to do one more thing. I want you to take a moment and think about your own name. Whatever it is for you: the name you were given at birth, the name you’ve claimed for yourself, the name with which you identity.
I know, for each one of you, there is someone who speaks that name in a way that hits your heart in just the right way. Maybe it was your mother, your father, your grand-mother or grand-father. Or a child, a friend, a spouse, a lover: someone who really knows you and when they speak your name, you feel it.
I want you to hear that name. Listen to what it sounds like. Savor it.
That holy name you hear is the name that Jesus calls you, just as you call out the Holy Name of Jesus. You, each one of you, are known of God, and beloved by God. You are known by name, and you are loved by name.
The Holy Name of Jesus matters when we speak it with love, when we utter it with recognition of the presence of Jesus in our lives, when we recognize the holy name that also marks us as beloved children of God, followers of Jesus Christ.
So, on this feast of the Holy Name on this Sunday after Christmas at the start of this New Year 2023, I urge you to carry the Holy Name with you not only through the rest of this season, but in all the days beyond. The work of Christmas doesn’t end. I’m going to close with a poem by Howard Thurman that might be familiar to you, reminding us that through all our days, it is the Holy Name of Jesus who speaks our name, inviting us to the work that we need to do, in Jesus’ name, throughout this world in which we live:
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.