Sunday January 1, 2017
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Daniels
We celebrate on January 1st of every year the feast called the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Most of the time January 1st is not a Sunday, so it is unusual for us to get to celebrate it with a choral service. But we do today, so: happy New Year, everybody, and happy Feast of the Holy Name.
Though “happy” might be a funny way of describing this particular day on the church’s calendar. In many communions this day is called “the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ,” a remembrance of that traditional ceremony on the eighth day after a Jewish birth that Jesus himself would have undergone. Whether the day of his circumcision was a happy one for him or not, I am not so sure. But it was an important day: God told Abraham at the beginning of the story of Israel that the circumcision of males on the eighth day would be the “token of the covenant” between them (Genesis 9:12). On this day, 2,000 years ago, Jesus became part of this covenant, and the covenant was marked on his very body. Then he is given the name, designated by God, passed on to Mary by the angel. On each New Year’s Day that is what we celebrate as a community of Jesus-followers, that that son of Mary was given a name.
It is obvious that names are important in the Bible. In our Old Testament reading today, the Lord told Moses to tell Aaron to bless the people by saying, “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make his face shine upon thee” and so forth. And then the Lord says, “And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.”
Put his name upon them. But what name? Moses, of course, knew what the name was, because God told him. When the Lord instructed Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, Moses said, Nobody is going to believe me if I just show up and say, God told me to do this. Who should I say sent me? And God said, “I AM THAT I AM …. this is my name forever.” Tell the people that I AM sent you.
That is the divine name, the holy name of God. It was and is sacred and precious. In the time of Temple worship, it was so revered that it was only spoken once a year, and then only by the high priest on the day of atonement. As a faithful Jew, Jesus himself never spoke it, as far as we know, and Jesus himself attested to its sacredness: when he taught the disciples to pray, he said, start by saying, “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Hallowed be that divine name of God, given to Moses, and not to be spoken, not even by Jesus himself. Nobody in the New Testament—Jews nor Gentiles—says it. Hallowed be that unspeakable name, that I AM that is the name of the creator of all things, the one who brought all things into existence, the one who chose Israel, who brought them out of Egypt, who made them a blessing to the whole world. Tell them I AM sent you, he told Moses, and keep my name holy. This is “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9), as the entirety of Scripture attests.
But it is the unique claim of Christians that this divine name, the great I AM, was, and is, shared by a human being: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. We pray with the name Jesus, the name given to him by the angel, but that is not the only name he has. He also shares that “name that is above every name,” the holy name given to Moses. As of the eighth day after the Nativity, after Christmas Day, that holy name is shared with a human name as well, with the one who is God incarnate, the Word made flesh.
After all, taken by itself, just on its own merits, the word “Jesus” itself is not the name above every name. Its Greek or Hebrew equivalents were common back then, and there are plenty of Jesuses around these days. Jesús Feliciano used to play baseball for the New York Mets; Jesús Montero was a catcher for the Yankees. Jesús Montero is not the name that is above every name. The name Jesus itself, when given to the son of Mary, is only important because it becomes the speakable name of God, whose name otherwise is too holy to say. We now say it when we say, “Jesus.”
This is the theological crux of the feast of the Holy Name and it expresses as much as anything the shock of the incarnation. The great I AM was circumcised on the eighth day. The one who is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father, who is the creator of all things and sustainer of them in every moment of their existence: this is the one who was found in a manger by a ragtag group of shepherds.
The shepherds didn’t go there just for any old Jesus, or any old Jesús. They went to see the one that the angels told them about. They went to see their Savior, their Messiah. They went to see divinity in flesh; the invisible God made visible; the unnamable God given a name, given a face, given a body, given parents. Given parents! Truly he was spared nothing.
It is shocking; it is scandalous; it is outrageous. And it is our faith, and it is our hope. Because just as the everlasting covenant with Abraham was marked on Jesus’ body at his circumcision, so was the new covenant marked on his body at his crucifixion decades later. And even at that moment, he remained who he is: all at once, the human being named Jesus who suffered the violence of the world, and the bearer of the divine name, equal with the Father and Spirit. With his death imminent, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prays to the Father, “keep [my followers] in thy name, which thou hast given me” (John 17:11b). Keep them in your name, which we share, that holy name, that name that is above every name. And thus the great I AM goes to his bodily suffering and death; and thus he brings life to the world.
Here on New Year’s Day, at the beginning of this new year of our Lord, we celebrate the holy name of Jesus. In a new year, we celebrate this new thing given to us. We celebrate that when we say the name Jesus, and we refer to the son of Mary, we are saying the personal name of the almighty God. We celebrate this new intimacy we have with him, an intimacy otherwise impossible. Nothing suggests God’s untouchable transcendence quite as much as his having an unspeakable name; nothing suggests his closeness to us as much as our calling him simply Jesus, a common name, so simple, so easy to say.
The kingdom of heaven comes near with Jesus’ birth. The great I AM is among us, and we call each other by name.
 It is only the name in Hebrew—YHWH—that is not to be spoken; Jesus of course made many “I am …” statements in the gospels, most importantly for these purposes the astounding, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
 So the RSV, with equivalents in the ESV, NIV, NRSV, and others. Cf. the KJV, however: “Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me.”