01 January 2009

The Holy Name of Jesus

The Holy Name of Jesus*
Puer natus

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

The ancient Romans had among their pantheon a god of doorways. His name was Janus. With two faces, one looking forward and the other looking back, he was the god of beginnings as well as endings. He gives his name, of course, to this month, “January,” and to “janitors,” the keepers of doorways.

And so, on the threshold of another year, as the vast majority of our fellow citizens are waking up from last night’s revelry and switching on holiday parades and football games, we are holy janitors, gathered here this morning to sanctify this transition – Janus was also the god of transition and change, by the way – and to greet this beginning with prayer and song and fellowship.

Just as the ancient Romans felt the need for a god of beginnings, and gathered to pay him homage when the wheat was sown, or when the harvest began, or when a baby was born, there is, within our human nature, a deep yearning for new beginnings, and a natural hope that this year will be better than the last.

That same yearning, that same hope, was ascribed to Jesus Christ by the early church. Paul in the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians, writes very simply: “He is the beginning.”

And, though as far as we know Jesus had only one face, looking forward, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos records the Lord saying again and again, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end.

After Pentecost, in a time of transition, the early Church struggled with its identity and purpose, longing in the face of persecution and skepticism for a new beginning, for the coming of the heavenly Jerusalem that John so vividly describes. The first followers ached for a second chance.

On this Feast of the Holy Name our readings are all about second chances, as we look backward and forward at the same time. In the book of Numbers, God pronounces a blessing on the new priests as they begin their new way of life. God has brought the people out of Egypt, and now God begins trying to build them into the vision of a priestly kingdom that is the culmination of God's plan. Centuries later, after prophets have risen and kingdoms have fallen, God tries again. Yet another chance, and again, God has a new name – officially given on this holy day: Jesus, Yeshua, the Lord is Salvation.

As a sign that it is indeed a new beginning, that God is crossing a threshold that has not been crossed before, as a sign that things are to be different, the news of the second chance is told first to shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks. Not to kings or sages. Not to the rich and the mighty. And where are the shepherds to find him? Not in Jerusalem. Not in the temple or in a palace, but in Bethlehem of all places, in a barn, wrapped in rags and lying in a feeding box. An old way is ending, and a new one is beginning. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

Christ’s birth, his advent, is a second chance for humanity, and for our relationship with God. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, declares that by it we have received adoption as God’s children. And what is adoption but a second chance? God in Christ has chosen us – adopted us – and given us a new beginning; and even more than a new beginning, a whole new life, a new birth, a new creation in which to live. We are no longer slaves but children of God. And so on this wonderful morning, on the threshold of another year, the news is good: God so loved the world, that in Christ, he gave us another chance, so that we may not perish, but have eternal life.

The tension built into the theology of Advent is its focus on both the first coming and the second coming of Christ. We prepare to celebrate the first even as we wait for the second. And some of us may wonder if we are to give thanks for the second chance that God offered us in Christ while all we can see around us is the need for the third chance?

In our most grounded, centered, and prayerful selves, we know that cries of “How Long, O Lord?” must be tempered by an understanding of the first coming. And the tension of Advent, the pull to give ourselves over to the hope of a new beginning that will fix everything, is balanced by an understanding of the incarnation, and the Church in God’s plan of salvation.

The tension of Advent is resolved in some sense by the knowledge that no matter when the second coming takes place, the first coming has given us the ability to live in the kingdom. That deep desire of every nation, that profound longing that we hear in Isaiah’s oracles, that Mary articulates in her song of praise, that Jesus foresaw – that possibility is present. It’s here. Jesus, as Paul says, is the Beginning.

In other words, we are living in an in-between time. We are living between the first coming and the second coming. And somehow, though we have been given everything we need to build the kingdom of God, we haven’t built it yet, at least not to the specifications of Jesus’ blueprint.

And so, as we step boldly once again across the threshold into a new year, perhaps our greatest hope should be that in this in-between time, God is not finished with us. That God is still at work in our lives and in creation.

On the Feast of the Holy Name, we might remind ourselves that our society has given God a lot of other names: “money,” “success,” “things,” “alcohol,” “drugs,” “sex.” Many people don’t know God’s name at all.

Our work as Christians, what we, in fact, must do, is to help people discover that God can still transform their lives. We are not just following an ethical code set forth by a lovely and kind teacher 2,000 years ago. We are building the kingdom of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, co-creators with God of a transformed reality. We must show the world that God, the great “I am,” the alpha and the omega, is not finished, but is at work, and has the power even now to give us new lives and new hearts.

It won’t be long – just a few months from now – until we gather before the cross, to witness the baby whose coming fills us with such hope, now grown and dying. The power of God, friends, is to draw Easter out of Good Friday.

The power of God is that beginnings follow what seem to be endings.

The meaning of the birth is connected to the meaning of the death and resurrection in this way: the kingdom breaks in where and when it is least expected. And despite any sense of powerlessness or hopelessness or cynicism we might experience, our purpose in this in-between time, this time of transition, is to be agents of the in-breaking. The kingdom comes – it can come and it will come – when we, by our work and witness, manifesting the power of God that we know, bring it to bear.

Our work as Christians is to make the kingdom real where and when it is least likely to appear. Isn’t that what it means to be the Body of Christ?

And so, fellow holy janitors, keepers of this new day, let us pray that God may fill our hearts with joy and hope in believing; save us from our fears and doubts; and give us courage and strength to be instruments of the in-breaking of his promised kingdom.

-- The Rev. Timothy Crellin is vicar of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Boston and founder of the B-SAFE program, which serves more than 500 children and teens in Boston every summer, and the St. Stephen's After School Program, which serves more than 125 young people every afternoon. He lives in Jamaica Plain with his wife, Jenny, and seven-year-old son, Adam. E-mail: TECrellin@aol.com

*How many of us are old enough to remember when today was "The Feast of the Circumcision Our Lord"?