The Feast of the Holy Name - January 1, 2016

Preacher: 
The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Feast of the Holy Name

December 31, 2016

January 1, 2017

The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor

 

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. (Luke 2:15-21)

 

----------------------------

Five years ago tonight, I stood behind this lectern for the first time as your vicar and we began our partnership in ministry.  At the time, it seemed like a great idea to usher in the New Year together, since we also stood at the threshold of a new beginning in the life of this congregation.  And it was a great idea!  But I don’t think any of us had a clue what a wild and wonderful journey this would be.  For that I rejoice, and for that I hope we can all celebrate tonight.

Celebrating the beginning of the New Year on January 1 goes back to the mid-first century when Julius Caesar restructured the civil calendar.  The Romans dedicated the day to Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings, hence the name of the first month, “January.”

From the very outset, the celebration of the New Year was a festival time – one that usually gave way to excesses and debauchery of every kind.  In response, the early church called upon Christians to open the New Year with prayer and worship – a counter cultural option that helped orient their gaze to another beginning, the birth of Christ.  Since January 1 falls 8 days after Christmas, it was the perfect day to recall the naming and circumcision of Jesus, which in accordance with the Laws of Moses, always took place on the 8th day after a male child’s birth. 

Initially, the church placed the emphasis of this day on the solemnity of the young mother Mary as she pondered the promise and the fulfillment of Jesus’ miraculous birth. More recently, this day became known as the “Feast of the Holy Name,” directing our attention to the name given to Jesus – which in Hebrew means “God Saves” or “God Heals.” We are invited to remember that Mary, a young mother - away from home, frightened, uncomfortable, and housed in a stable – trusted the promise of healing and freedom given in Jesus’ name – and in this child she had been chosen to bear and to nurture against great odds.  

And what strikes me is that, in the face of fear and uncertainty, and the insecurity of her future, Mary does what any good Jewish mother would do – she brings her son into the traditions and blessings she has inherited and has him circumcised, marking him as one of God’s own and receiving God’s protection.

 “May the Lord Bless you and keep you” says the Aaronic blessing we heard in our reading from Numbers.  This was the same blessing that God gave the Israelites on the threshold of their beginning as a people, marking them with his Holy Name.  This was the same blessing of protection that Mary likely heard each time she gathered with her community to mark every rite of passage. Now, in Jesus, this blessing and this name were to be embodied in flesh and blood.  There was nothing more to fear.

As with Mary, each one of us is invited to trust that the only thing that stands in the way of the joy and renewal of our new beginnings is fear.  We, too, are invited to have faith in the God who blesses and liberates and heals all things.

But as we all know, it is much more common to fear than to have faith.  This past year, fear has cast its shadows in every news show, each magazine cover, every twitter feed. We are fearful because we live in a time of political and military and social uncertainty.  Some of the changes that we face are not welcome changes.  So, as we stand on the edge of this New Year, we also stand among those who are far more pre-occupied with building up their defenses than in shoring up their faith. 

It was during such a time – actually much worse of a time - that in 1939 King George VI made what has come to be known as his “Christmas Speech.”[1]  This is not the same speech that was the subject of movie, the “King’s Speech” but happened a few months later.  It was, however, delivered to the same nervous, troubled and fearful people in the British Empire by the same nervous, stammering, yet courageous monarch.  And there was much reason to be fearful in 1939, for the world stood on the precipice of a second world war – and the terror it faced in Adolph Hitler was a threat to anything that was civil, holy, or moral.

In the face of this incomparable danger and seeking a way to offer reassurance, the King addressed his people in what became the most famous Christmas address in the 20th century.  He concluded his speech by quoting from an obscure Canadian poet named Minnie Louise Haskins, from a little piece she had written entitled the Gate of the Year:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied, “go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand

of God.  That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.

 

"Better to you than light, and safer than a known way."  And after speaking these words, King George offered a blessing:  “May that almighty hand guide and uphold us all.”

By giving this speech on Christmas Day, King George clothed the turn of a new year, in all its hope and in its terror, in a spiritually grounded ritual which ended in a blessing.  He continued this tradition for 13 years until his death in 1952, a tradition that has been sustained by Queen Elizabeth to this day.  You can google her 2016 address.  It is very moving.[2]

As we stand before crucial thresholds in our own lives, at the edge of our new beginnings, we too need to find ways to protect and keep our joy from the darkness and uncertainty of the world; we need words to encourage and guide us as we cross over into the unknown.  And yet, the words for what is nearest to our heart are often hard to come by.  That is what our rituals, our blessings, our tradition provide for us.  We let the ritual take over for us, especially when we are unclear of our motives, preoccupied with daily life, or fearful of the future. 

This is what Dr Roger Ferlo so beautifully articulated at my ordination, just before I began my ministry here.  He added, “Our rituals allow us to acknowledge in safety how fragile and exposed we are, not just in the face of the world’s terrors, but also before the face of the One who searches us out and knows us, who knows our sitting down and our risings up, the One who presses upon us before and behind, the One who calls each of us by name.”

Five years ago, we began a new ministry together, and tonight, we begin again.  And while we don’t have many of the uncertainties that we faced in 2011, there is still much about our future that we do not know.  But if we have learned anything together over these years about starting over and trying something new, it is this.  All beginnings are ultimately invitations to open up to the gifts and growth that have already been held in waiting, only to be tapped and utilized in God’s good time.  And that it is only through taking risks and trusting in life’s continual beginnings that we will ever be able to mine those riches that have been given to us by our creator.

So as we contemplate the threshold of this next year, I offer you the same blessing I gave five years ago, a blessing of beginnings written by the late Celtic poet, Jim O’Donahue:[3]

 

In the out of the way places of the heart,

Where your thoughts never think to wander,

This beginning has been quietly forming. 

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

 

For a long time it has watched your desire,

Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,

Noticing how you willed yourself on,

Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

 

It watched you play with the seduction of Safety

And the gray promises that sameness whispered,

Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,

Wondered would you always live like this.

 

Then, in delight, when your courage kindled,

And out you stepped onto new ground,

Your eyes young again with energy and dream,

A path of plenitude opened before you.

 

Though your destination is not yet clear

You can trust the promise of this opening;

Unfurl yourselves into the grace of beginning

That is at one with your life’s desire.

 

Awaken your spirit to adventure;

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

 

 

And may the Lord Bless you and keep you,

May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;

May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.  (Numbers 6:24-26)

 

Amen.

 

 

[1] https://lisawallerrogers.com/tag/the-kings-christmas-speech-1939/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ter9kfGpdCw

[3] Jim O’Donahue, “For a New Beginning” in Bless the Space Between Us:  A Book of Blessings (New York:  Doubleday, 2008), 14

Go to top