Friday, December 24, 2010

The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ Year A,B,C

The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ A,B,C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

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

Embedded in this amended and expanded account in the Book of Numbers of God's people wandering in the wilderness for forty years is a priestly blessing, which has become iconic in worship in synagogue and church. Its origin is from the Lord to Moses through whom it extends to "Aaron and his sons." It affirms God's favor, generosity, grace and peace. Its pronouncement is assurance that " name [is] on the Israelites and I will bless them," says the Lord.

Inspired by creation, the psalmist "sees" the moon and stars, the creatures of the earth and sea as well as humankind as God's work. All creatures bear God's "name in all the earth."

Responding to troubles in churches in Galatia, Paul restates his understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ for Jews and for all. Here he emphasizes that Jesus was "born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law," which is necessary "so that we all might receive adoption as children." This status confers permission to call God "Abba! Father!" making each a "child" and an "heir."


In what appears to be an extant hymn of the early church which Paul incorporates in his letter to the church in Philippi, the supreme act of Christ Jesus is that he "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave [servant], being born in human likeness." As a man, he accepted humility and obedience "to the point of death--even death on a cross." But God "highly exalted hm..." and bestowed a "name that is above every name...."

Raymond Brown replaces any sentimental, pastoral notions of shepherds in Luke's time with with his assessment as "dishonest, outside the law." (The Birth of the Messiah, p.420) Luke gives these shepherds the distinct honor of telling Mary and Joseph the message given to them by the angels, "to you this day there is born in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah and Lord." In character with her reaction when she was first told of the miraculous birth and her privileged role, "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart...." "Eight days" after the birth and visit of the shepherds, Mary and Joseph had the infant circumcised according to custom, when he was also given his name, being "called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb."

Names matter in biblical texts. Elaborate etymologies, name changes (Abram, Sara/Abraham,Sarah), eponymous naming begin the portraits or hint at future deeds and traits and launch short or long and elaborate stories. Even God evokes many different names in biblical texts-- El, Yahweh, Shaddai, Lord, Creator, and from Paul echoing the gospels, "Abba! Father!" Names are not incidental, they are integral features of the biblical narratives.

Luke takes up this tradition in his unique fashion. Only Luke tells us that after the birth and awkward visit from the shepherds, Mary and Joseph dutifully set off to have the infant Jesus circumcised and given his name. Although the selected name was given by "the angel before he was conceived in the womb," the privilege of announcing the name and teaching it to the child as he grows up is given to Mary and Joseph. "At circumcision the newborn of God is spoken to even before he can speak, addressed by words he cannot understand, commissioned in advance before uttering a word of his own...." (
John Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion, p. 263) (In the same way, Luke has already made the same point by having the shepherds convey to Mary and Joseph the good news they had been given by angels!) For Luke, it is in the routine, daily, human tasks of naming and passing on good news that God's work gets done in the world. The inspiration is not human-- "from the angels"-- but the actual work of naming and telling could not be more mundane, yet the results more important.

The Lord gives to Moses, who in turn passes it to Aaron and all future descendants, the privilege of reminding God's people in perpetuity that God has given them God's name. The psalmist looks around him and one day and "sees" God's "name" everywhere-- the diversity and marvel of creatures on land and in the sea, other people, the marvels of the sky in day and at night-- and immediately sets to telling in poetry what he has seen. The faithful "look" at the story of Jesus, see an overwhelming display of God's love and in a newly composed hymn venerate a "name that is above every name...." Dazzled by this story of love, Paul highlights that daring new name for God, "Abba! Father!" Telling and naming are human responsibilities and privileges, including the opportunities to "name" God, accept that we are named -- "adopted"--by God, and to tell a marvelous story of love. Tell it! Name it!

God's child in Christ adopted, --Christ my all,--
What that earth boasts were not lost cheaply, rather
That forfeit the blessed name, by which I call
The Holy One, the Almighty God, my Father?--
Father! in Christ we live, and Christ in Thee--
Eternal Thou, and everlasting we.

(From "My Baptismal Birth-Day," Samuel Taylor Coleridge)