Sermon for the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus
1st Jan 2012
“…and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel”. Luke 2.21.
William Ewer once said, “How odd of God to choose the Jews” to which a reply came back ”how strange of man to change the plan”. Or Ogden Nash’s rejoinder “…not so odd, the Jews chose God”. There is no getting away from the Jewish origins of Christianity, and today we begin a new year as we celebrate and honour the name of Jesus. Jesus’ circumcision locates him within a particular religion and culture. But this did not have the last word. In the century following the death of Jesus there was a struggle to assert a distinctively Christian identity out of the old Jewish inheritance. This identity lay in the person of Jesus who was both a traditional and practising Jew and yet came to fulfil the promises of Jewish scripture as the promised Messiah.
The early Church not only embraced The Holy Name of Jesus. It internalised it. It lived it. It was in the name of Jesus that the community found its reason for being. This was at variance from Judaism, which saw its identity as a chosen people and nation. For Christianity, the identifying mark was that of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ himself. The identity was named not after a place or a people but in one person, Jesus. The Church did not exist as a personality cult : the manner of Jesus’ sacrificial death was crucial to its spiritual identity. From the beginning of its life, the early church shared a eucharistic meal, which remembered and re-enacted the Last Supper, and in which the words and gestures of Jesus became significant of themselves. In this meal, the community were brought together in their shared faith and became at one with Christ and with one another. As St Paul put it,
…we who are many are one body, because we all share in one bread. (Romans 12.5)
Didache, a very early Century history of the Christian community, written in 90AD shows a very distinct eucharistic community. It recognises its Jewish inheritance and yet the scope of its new Christian vision is breathtaking. It is revealed in this simple eucharistic prayer:
As this broken bread once scattered on the mountains, and after it had been brought together became one, so may thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, through Jesus Christ for ever and ever.
The Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Mass was to become the mainstay of the Church’s existence. It was known to be the sacrament which claimed dominical authority from the lips of Christ himself when he said ‘do this in remembrance of me’. And the sharing in the Eucharist developed from being at first a fellowship meal which encouraged the faithful and remembered the Passover sacrifice to becoming, during the centuries of persecution under various Roman Emperors, a powerful means of keeping the group of beleaguered yet growing faithful together and which determined the church’s growth.
By the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in around 320 AD Christianity was influential and widespread. It now had, in terms which all could understand and respect, a world standing. It had been a faith strong enough to establish itself in the hearts and minds of individuals and communities from very diverse backgrounds and cultures. The name; the life and death and resurrection of Jesus communicated itself to the then known world in ways it could understand and honour. It was in the sharing of the Eucharist that the name of Jesus was manifest within and then increasingly beyond the compact Judaeo-Christian circles of the earlier centuries. Now, by 320, Christianity took its place, for better or worse, as a religion given the full Imperial treatment. If you go to Ravenna the mosaics in the Church of San Vitale tell you that The Church has by this time become the beating heart of the history and culture of the western world. The Emperor Justinian is surrounded by his bishops who occupy with him the place of honour. It is from these early centuries that the eucharist which sustained the beleaguered early communities became emphatically communicative and ceremonial, in which movements and gestures, vestments, the carrying of candles, the making of corporate confession, the reading from scripture, the procession of the Gospel book, the saying of great eucharistic prayers and the establishment of great churches and the building of altars all contributed to the church as we recognise it today. But with all this came the concern for the life of the people generally and the attention given to the poor and the needy. The life of Christ was manifest not only from within the Church’s worshipping life, but outwardly in its relation to the world around it. This was one of the causes of its strong survival. Jesus was synonymous with the practice of a vital and sacrificial love. Where he had gone, the Christian Church was to follow. The scale and scope of this was evident, convincing and humanitarian.
I have offered this thumbnail history of the first five centuries of the Christian Church’s life for two reasons. The first of these is to come, on this first Sunday of a new year, to underline the importance the church attaches to the name of Jesus. In this name and in this identity do we stand or fall as Christians. This name is made present in this and in all celebrations of the Holy Eucharist in which we, though many, we are made one body in Him. To receive Jesus in this way is to lay claim to the Christian inheritance of faith in its entirety.
Secondly it is important for me on this day in which we are celebrating the Holy Eucharist according to the Anglican Rite to recognise and honour the Christian inheritance. To do this is to look not upon a narrow range of local possibilities but to catch sight of a broad horizon in which we, living in this twelfth year of this twenty-first century, embrace a tradition which takes us back to Christ himself. In this Eucharist, we participate in the life of Christ with all those who have ever gone before us. All those who in whatever time or circumstance have come to receive Christ in this holy sacrament, and in receiving him have been granted a share in the divine life. It is by him and alongside them that we stand before God and hear the words of Luke in today’s Gospel. “He was called Jesus” , the name given not by man or by posterity alone, but by a messenger come from the father, an angel sent to fulfil in Jesus and in us the true purposes of the divine initiative…
Father we thank Thee who has planted
Thy holy name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus The Son to us imparts.
Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,
Didst give man food for all his days,
Giving in Christ the bread eternal;
Thine is the power, be Thine the praise.
Watch o'er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in Thy love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in the broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy Church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.
From The Didache, 90 AD.
New English Hymnal No. 284.