The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus
Introduction and Call to Worship
As we gather today during this great Christmas season of celebration, so we are assured of the promise of Jesus that by his Incarnation we are made children of God.
First Reading Numbers 6:22-end
Known as the Aaronic blessing, these words have always been precious to God’s people. They have been found on jewellery dated earlier than 600 BC. The Hebrew is carefully crafted, highly alliterative, and with each line building in length. But no less important is the conclusion: “So they shall put my name on the Israelites.” Attachment to God’s name comes at a cost, but it is a blessing.
Second Reading Galatians 4:4-7
These few verses are a perfect and succinct statement of the Gospel and its purpose in our lives. Here we have incarnation, full humanity, redemption, adoption, sanctification, our lives caught up in personal relationship within the Trinity, vocation and destiny. None of this is purely individual, but in the context of God’s cosmic plan.
Gospel Luke 2:15-21
The angels have gone back into heaven. The flurry of the birth is over. Now the Son of God submits to the fleshly realities of humanity. Yet his divine origin is never forgotten, nor his divine purpose.
HOMILY “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 2:21)
On the first day of school, the teacher asked a student, "What are your parents' names?" The student replied, "My father's name is Laughing and my mother's name is Smiling." The teacher said, "Are you kidding?" The student said, "No, Kidding is my brother. I am Joking." It was traditional in Hebrew practice to name a male child at the time of their circumcision on the eighth day after birth, as recorded in the Gospel according to Luke 1:59, and the custom of conferring a name upon children in Christian baptism was a development of medieval Christianity. However, in Elizabethan England, as suggested by Camden (see Encyclopaedia Britannica for full quotation), the term “Christian Name” was not necessarily related to baptism, but used merely in the sense of "given name": "Christian names were imposed for the distinction of persons, surnames for the difference of families."
In more modern times, the terms ‘given name’ and ‘forename’ have been used interchangeably with ‘Christian name’. As Christians, our name is important to us, although not everyone chooses to use theirs. Mine has been somewhat annoying with people regularly miss-spelling it by exchanging the second ‘a’ for an ‘e’. I can assure everyone that at my baptism over 40 years ago, I was baptised ‘Damian’! “Damian” pronounced the Vicar of Church in the Wood, St Leonards on a cold Easter Sunday morning, “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Just think for a moment about those familiar and yet very special words in the Baptism rite – but add in your name… Nick… Joan… David… Susan... “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Your name means a lot more than just your identity as a person: it is your Christian name, your name under God, following in a tradition that mirrors the Old Testament practice of naming a child. Often the baptism of a child takes place within their first year or so, but for Jesus his naming happened on the eighth day after he was born, in line with Jewish tradition. At that point he was also circumcised. The ceremony included a charge to his parents, like the baptism rite today, that Jesus must be raised as prescribed in God’s law. Yet Luke also makes the point that the name “Jesus” had been given by the angel before he was conceived – meaning “God saves.” In baptism, we recognise God’s presence in our lives and look to the salvation of our souls. The involvement of God in his life began before Jesus’ birth. In his letter to the Galatians, St Paul describes how God sent his Son to be among us (and save us) but in the process that his Son had submitted to the Law of Moses. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” (Galatians 4:4)
Both the name “Jesus” and the dutiful actions of Mary and Joseph in following the Law of Moses point to the destiny of a child who would fulfil all our hopes and dreams in his life, mission and death. Jesus came from God; he was made man and he lived among us, submitting to the Law of Moses in order that a new relationship could be established – not simply with the Hebrew people who had long awaited such a time, but with all of humanity. He is fully human, born of Mary, yet in naming him God identifies his destiny and our salvation is revealed.
Circumcision is the traditional sign of Jesus belonging to the Hebrew line - part of the family of Abraham. Of course, unlike today, Jesus was not left to ‘make up his own mind when he was old enough’. If this child was to be a Hebrew, he had to be circumcised, and that physical change to his body could not be undone. There was even a time when Gentiles had to be circumcised if they were to become slaves of a Jewish household. This was not about ethnicity; rather more about belonging and relating to each other and to God. Likewise, in baptism, we are changed by the waters from our old selves into new people and this can never be undone. Although we bare no physical scar, we are spiritually set apart in anticipation of our own salvation.
Jesus’ name tells us a lot about him. Even on this, his day of naming, we know his mission is to save us. Friends, we are, to use St Paul’s language, all born “under law” and today’s Gospel reading reminds us that our name is a testimony to our calling in faith to salvation, for we too belong to God. Whatever we may say or do, we are not created by culture, nor did we make ourselves. Everything we are and will be is of God’s love and creativity and that is why each one of us is so very precious in God’s eyes – so special that he sent his only begotten Son to show us the way of salvation and love us literally to death – the very meaning of his own name. Amen.
1. The act of naming indicates the people among whom the named one belongs.
2. Paul summarises doctrinally what Luke describes in narrative.
3. Jesus belonged to the fellowship of God, but gave himself to the culture of humans.
4. Jesus demonstrated that our primary “belonging” is also within the divine community, and he saved us to step into that community.
5. Secure in the community of God, we can handle both our private and public lives with confidence and charity to others.