The text of the sermon, based on Luke 2.15-21 with reference to Galatians 4.4-7, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the Feast of the Holy Name, January 1, 2023.
“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus.”
In Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to a son. Eight days later, following Jewish custom and ceremony, the identity of that son was conferred. He was circumcised, bearing on his body the mark of God’s ancient covenant with Abraham; the outward, visible sign that he was a Jew, a member of a people. He also was given his name; the outward, audible sign of his life’s purpose, the role he would play in the world on behalf of his people. Jesus. The Greek form of the Hebrew, Joshua, and the Aramaic, Jeshua; meaning “God is salvation” or, simply, “God saves.”
The commemoration of the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, coming on the first day of the calendar year, is our reminder, as followers of Jesus, not only who we are, but also whose we are. We belong to God made known to us in Jesus. His life of love and justice. Yes, in his self-sacrificial, salvific dying on the cross for our sins. Yet equally in his daily ministry of compassion for the least, care for the lost, comfort for the last and left out, and challenge to the comfortable to act on behalf of the marginalized and disenfranchised. A life we are called not so much to worship – as in Jesus has done it all, so “Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord” and that’s it! But rather a life we are to continue, so, to be his present presence in the world.
To put this another way…
Baptism is the rite of initiation into the Christian Church; the present-in-the-world Body of Christ. At baptism, only the first name of the one to be baptized is spoken. Not the surname of the earthly family into which one has been born. The reason for this (historically, so well-known that it went without saying; now, for so long, not having been said, I think, is not well known) is that in Baptism one is given a new surname of the larger, universal, spiritual family into which one, as the Apostle Paul declares, is adopted. Christian. In baptism, one is christened. Literally named for Christ. Named to be as Christ in the world.
Our Baptismal Covenant expresses what this looks like:
Q: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
A: I will, with God’s help.
Q: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
A: I will, with God’s help.
We stand on the threshold of a new year. Traditionally, a time of resolution-making to continue a good practice or to change an undesirable past pattern or to attempt a newly discerned purpose.
I suggest that we reflect again on this word: After eight days had passed, the child was circumcised and named Jesus. For I see in these Jewish customs and ceremonies a model for us in this new year. So, I ask, have we – our hearts – been circumcised? Have we, metaphorically, yet no less truly been cut to the quick, to the core of ourselves with an awareness of the world’s need around us? Thus, to care for the least, lost, last, and left out? And, yes, to challenge the comfortable; even when, most uncomfortably, it is we ourselves whom we must confront?
If so, then can we, will we, on this first day of the new year, reclaim our name “Christian”?
Speaking for myself, I was baptized on Sunday, October 26, 1952, at the age of 4½ months. Thus, I’ve gone by the name “Christian” for the greatest part of my life. Given what it means, to be named as Christ to a life of self-sacrificial service, it still works well for me. However, given the bigotry and brutality, the intolerance and malice perpetrated in the name of Jesus by countless Christians, beginning in the first century and continuing, I also recognize that the name “Christian” bears for many less than favorable, truly despised connotations. So, with God’s help, it is up to me to proclaim the name “Christian” with the words of my lips and the works of my life in ways that bring honor to Jesus. That is my resolution for every day of 2023.
How about you?
© 2023 PRA
Illustration: IHS, the transliterated and capitalized first three letters of the word “Jesus” in the Greek, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.
 See Genesis 17.9-12a
 The refrain of the Christmas carol, O come, all ye faithful (1743), John Francis Wade (1711-1786)
 From The Baptismal Covenant (my emphases), The Book of Common Prayer, pages 304-5
 See the Apostle Paul’s conception of the circumcision of the heart (Romans 2.25-29); an aspect of his larger argument of justification for his mission of gospel proclamation among the Gentiles.