It’s not a New Year’s resolution that I will blog more often in 2012, but — let’s face it — I couldn’t blog much less than I did last year. As a first-fruits of the new year, and as an easy way into blogging for the coming year, I’m attaching this morning’s sermon below.
It’s not composed de novo; it’s based on a sermon I preached back in the States a few cycles ago. The content and context are different, though, and I’ve tidied up some unsatisfactory formulations that resulted from the editing process. (I’ve argued before, in the heyday of non-commercial blogging, that it’s perfectly kosher even to repeat sermons verbatim; the task of composing an admirable, entirely fresh essay week on week poses too great a challenge for almost every preacher. Moreover, the notion of ‘originality’, and especially the expectation of homiletical originality, derive from some very dubious source, and certainly not from a gospel imperative. In any case, this morning’s sermon wasn’t a repeat, but a new version of an old theme. And here it is.)
St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
Num 6:22-27 / Ps 8 / Gal 4:4-7 / Luke 2:15-21
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..
+ In the Holy Name of God, made known to us in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Greetings, welcome everyone, and a happy Hogmanay, or New Year’s Day, or Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, or Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, or Feast of the Circumcision. You all know what Hogmanay or New Year’s means, and we will honour the civil calendar by blessing diaries here this morning. You may know that the Solmenity of Mary doesn’t mean that the Mother of Jesus lacked a sense of humour, but that on 1 January the Roman Catholic Church devotes particular attention to our Patroness with attention to her mothering Jesus. We once used to celebrate today as the Feast of the Circumcision — but since Vatican II shifted the focus from Jesus to Mary, and since circumcision in general is practised less and less in Western cultures, and since naming applies to both boys and girls, but the Judaic rite of circumcision applies only to males, and since (let’s be honest) there’s something a wee bit uncomfortable about spotlighting this part of Jesus’ anatomy in church, most liturgical traditions define today as the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.
We’d do well, though, not to hop so quickly away from the more traditional identification of today’s feast. The rite of circumcision has a specific theological gravity that differs from the giving of a name. True, everyone has a name, so everyone can identify with the theme of today’s feast; but circumcision signifies exactly that one is not just anybody. Circumcision (in a ritual context) marks one, seals one, as belonging to the people of God who uphold the Torah, who belong to the family of Abraham. In a comparable way, the church baptises those who join themselves to the Body of Christ; both circumcision and baptism, but not naming, are rituals of particularity, of defining our identity and our ultimate allegiance. When we allow the Feast of the Holy Name to eclipse the Feast of the Circumcision, we risk favouring a generalised, vaguely spiritual picture of Jesus, and we risk blurring his very particular Judaic identity.
It still comes as a surprise to many people that Jesus was Jewish. It comes as even more of a surprise when they learn that, according to the gospels, he was an observant Jew, born under the Law; he was circumcised and dedicated in the Temple, he celebrated the Jewish festivals, he taught that the Law of Moses would never pass away until heaven and earth pass away at the consummation of all things. Our Lord Jesus Christ was a thoroughly Jewish man. He defended the Law; he went to Passover festivals; when he healed lepers, he sent them to the priests in accordance with the rules in the book of Leviticus; he paid the tax that supported the Temple in Jerusalem; he went to synagogue services regularly. He not only lived by the laws of Moses as they are written in Scripture, but he also commended the Pharisaic interpretation of those laws, and in his teachings he reproduced many sayings which would be at home in the tradition of the rabbis. Jesus was Jewish not only in a remote, abstract, spiritual way, but he was Jewish in all the very concrete and particular ways of everyday life.
What is more, even though the next generations of Christians gradually recognised that the Law of Moses was not binding on Gentiles who came before God in Christ, yet the Law itself stood as a sign of God’s good providence for Israel; God taught Israel the way of Life, and gave Israel the Law as the guide to the covenant which would forever bind God and this chosen people. St. Paul taught that the Law was holy, good, and just, and that although God had revealed a new righteousness apart from the Law in Christ Jesus, yet the Law was not bad, nor are those who obey the Law misguided.
And both in the life and teachings of our Lord and in the traditions of Israel, a persistent theme involves the hallowing of time and season, and the hallowing of identity, in ways that set people apart. Such practices provide a toehold by which we can hang on to the memory that although we may love the world, may learn from the world, may honour civil authority and cooperate with some secular powers, we belong to an order, a citizenry, that upholds priorities different from the world’s.
That may seem unreasonable. It may seem silly to suggest that our attendance at church, our observance of special feast days, even our making the sign of the cross or bowing at the name of Jesus, make some kind of difference to our spiritual well-being. But let me suggest some good reasons for thinking that these practices are quite important indeed. Not only do we have the example of Jesus and his immediate followers; we have the evidence of our own lives.
We know that practice, that the habit of working on a particular skill or capacity day in and day out, inevitably makes us better at what we are doing. The more I type, the more I practice the right way to type, the faster and more accurate I get. The more I work on my Greek grammar, the better I can read and translate. The more I cook — in theory — the better I can gauge just how much longer a particular dish needs to stay on the hob. While there may be some people who are blessed with the capacity to be great at something without practice, those people are rare indeed; they certainly aren’t me. Instead, the lesson which we have to admit is that practice, habit, make things into a vital part of our lives; practice makes us better at whatever we try.
The opposite is true as well. They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but I know from experience that when you try to ride a bike after not having ridden one for fifteen or twenty years, it takes a long time for those skills to come back. If I were to pick up a guitar — and we all may be thankful that I can’t reach one to demonstrate — I would play it as badly as someone who has never tried before, because I was never adequate at playing the guitar, and it has been years since I even tried. And the same goes with our life of worship. As we leave off going to church one day, as we sleep late another day, as we omit our daily prayers in a hurry one morning, then forget them the next, we gradually lose our facility for worshipping God; we lose our touch, our sense for just how our lives should distinctively glorify God.
It’s easy enough to say, “Oh, well, I believe and everything, but I don’t have to go to church.” But our participating in the life of the church helps to train us to react to life not only as thinking heads, but as people whose bodies are trained for holy living as well. If we train ourselves with the habit of going to church, of making the sign of the cross, of extending our hands to receive the blessing of Holy Communion, it is these gestures and habits that will come to us if we find ourselves in a crisis; and if we remember to make the sign of a cross, we more easily remember to pray to the crucified Lord. We more readily remember that we live in the hands of a God who cares for us.
We are called to assent to God, to worship God, not only in mental abstractions, but with particular physical practices. That’s why the people of Israel practice circumcision; that’s why Jesus and the apostles upheld the Law, even though they were — in Christ — freed from the Law; that’s why we, too, train our bodies, form our habits in holy ways. If we don’t want our faith to get flabby, if we don’t want to lose our sense of what’s fitting and right, and what isn’t, then we have to keep practicing faith, not just in doing vaguely good deeds, but in observing specific spiritual exercises — even the times you don’t want to, even on the morning after Hogmanay when the preacher is some boring lecturer who’s not even from Scotland, who perhaps doesn’t understand you or your life.
So Happy Hogmanay — may you be healed of any affliction that hangs over you.
And Happy New Year — may all your dates and appointments come to a grand fulfilment.
And blessed be Mary, Godbearer, Mother of our Lord.
And praised be the Holy Name of Jesus, at which every knee will bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
But let us not forget also to observe a holy Feast of the Transfiguration, by remembering and practising a faith that gives glory to the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.