This Sunday is a kind of a special one. While I believe all Sundays are special, and I really do believe that, this one is somewhat unique. It falls on the first day of January and is therefore not only News Years Day, but it is also the day of the naming of Jesus. And Sunday does not fall on this particular day very often. But I think we usually pass by this day, the naming of Jesus, because the events of the past Sunday, Christmas day are still so much with us this time of year.
We’re so caught up in the story of the shepherds that we forget, according to Jewish custom; a birth really isn’t complete until the rite of circumcision and naming of the child on the eighth day. While I guess it makes sense that circumcision is left out of most Christmas pageants (It, after all might make it hard to find anyone willing to play Jesus!), it is interesting that the pageants also leave out the naming ceremony. After all, in Hebrew, as in many languages, names weren’t just names. When revealed, names meant something and defined who the person was. Benjamin, for example, means “son of my right hand.” Because of this, the naming and the act of circumcision done on the 8th day after birth represents more than just a ritual. Like Baptism, the naming ceremony is the individual’s connection with the covenant – and therefore to God. Like Baptism, it is a time of new birth and the taking on of identity and vocation in relationship to God. That is why Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, why Jacob’s was changed to Israel, why Saul’s was changed to Paul and why we name children during baptism. Names – and the act of Naming -- were important. This morning’s gospel tells us that eight days after his birth, the baby born in the manger at Bethlehem was named Jesus. “Jesus” came from the Hebrew “Joshua” or Aramaic “Yeshua” and means “the one who saves,” thus showing what the one who is also called “Emmanuel – God with us” was to do.
This morning’s gospel, which reveals the name of Jesus, is also paired with one of the rare occasions that the Old Testament reveals the name of God. It is hard to tell in English but the name of God was used very rarely in Hebrew Bible texts. If you go to the Dead Sea Scrolls Museum in Jerusalem, you can see the ancient script where, in order to avoid blasphemy, the name of God was usually represented instead by four dots – one of each of the consonants – and derivations of the word “Lord” was used instead. The four consonants YHWH (called the “tetragrammaton” and pronounced “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”) are usually translated in English as “L-O-R-D” or “G-O-D.” The word “L-o-r-d” is used for the Hebrew “Adonai;” “G-o-d” is for “Elohim;” and, “Lord God” or other combinations are “Adonai Elohim” etc. If you start looking through your Bible, you will see is that the tetragrammaton “LORD” – that is YHWH – is very rare. It is rare because the use of God’s name was so powerful.
Names are indeed important. My parents named me Patrick and I rather like that name. When I started to attend school I was asked if I preferred to be called Pat or Patrick. In order to be helpful, I thought, I said “Pat”, because it was easier to say. Well the name Pat stuck and for the next twenty years or more I was called Pat. The problem is I would have much preferred to be called Patrick. If I had known the implications of the decision I made in grade one I am sure I would have chosen differently. That is why when I started my new life as someone entering the process of becoming a minister I intentionally told people my name is Patrick. It turns out it is significant to me. Names are important. In the Narthex of our church there is a list of names.
There are the names of past parishioners who died in the two world wars. This is not just a list of names. These are the young people who died for a cause; that cause being our country and our way of life. I don’t know if this building, this physical church will be standing here one hundred years from now, but I dare say that those names will still be prominently displayed, as well they should be. It is not just a list of names. In a similar vein I remember distinctly the opening of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC. At first the Vietnam veterans were upset with the memorial because it was set into the ground and the wall itself was black. Some of them called it the black hole and felt it was a symbolic slap in the face. But over time their opinions of the memorial changed significantly. When they came to visit it and see it in person they realized what it was all about. All the names of those who had been killed were engraved on the wall. I am sure you have seen the same pictures that I have. Veterans or family members slowly searching out the name they are looking for and then they find it. They see the name of their friend, their husband, their wife, the father they never knew, and they start to cry. Some of them etch out the names on a piece of paper. This is not just a list of names, this is important. Each one of us has a special name, a name given to us by our family. God knows our names -- in fact, God calls each one of us by our very own name! God told the prophet Isaiah a long time ago that "I have called you by name; you are mine. Because you are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you”.
There is so much Joy and Love to remember at this time of year: the gift of Jesus and his name, and the gift of your own name. In our name and in Jesus' name we have received a very special gift, one we can take away with us and use all the time in our lives. Just for a moment, imagine that you are standing there with the Shepherds, looking at the newborn baby Jesus, hearing his name, remembering all the love that God gives us in that very special birth.
Now remember your own name, and how God has called you by name and given you light and love in Jesus. Remember the people around you, your family and friends, your neighbours your coworkers. Think about how beautiful their names are, and how God knows every one. Then think of one beautiful thing that happened to you today or this week, something that filled you with joy and light. As you remember these things, you can help to make the rest of the day -- and every day -- beautiful, filled with the light and love and joy of the one named Jesus Christ.
And you certainly don't have to be in church to remember that way! You can stop, anywhere you are, and imagine yourself standing with the shepherds, and hearing the beautiful name of Jesus, and your own beautiful name, and know that you are filled with love and light. And you can share that gift with others, by helping them to see and remember Jesus this way, and by helping God to make the world more beautiful, more full of light, today and always. You see, you really are important, and that’s why God calls you and each one of us by our own name. Amen.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney