The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Phillipians 2:5-11 & Luke 2:15-21
After the long months of a pregnancy and the exceedingly dangerous experience of childbirth in the ancient world, bestowing a name upon a child must have been a deeply cathartic action. Even today, in the midst of the profound uncertainty that faces every new life, the moment a child’s name is first spoken aloud in his or presence signifies a new beginning rich with specific potential. The act of circumcision that accompanied – and still accompanies – the naming of a Jewish male child reminded the parents of a larger reality holding their new child in being: the ancient covenant between God and Israel. It situated the child on an axis of meaning both horizontally, in relation to his ancestors and his eventual offspring, as well as vertically, as a frail human creature in relation to the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Under normal circumstances, this was also the child’s first major wounding: the first shedding of blood.
A Name and a Wound. A sign taken upon the lips and tongue, and a sign written upon the body. In any ordinary human life, these are gifts of inexhaustible significance. At the same time they are utterly common, shared by countless others. The Holy Name of Jesus and the first precious drops of Blood spilled from his human body have become fountainheads of meaning for the Church throughout the ages. But contrary to the impression we receive from so many Renaissance paintings, the inner significance of these events would have been entirely hidden to the casual observer. The cosmic task initiated by God through the angel Gabriel is now brought to faithful, obedient completion by Mary and Joseph. But though it was spoken by the lips of an angel, the name Yeshua was, after all, an incredibly common name. The act of circumcision enfolded him into the common life of the Jewish people. The eighth day after the nativity of this special child was a very special day in the life of his human parents. But it was an utterly ordinary day for everyone else.
Human beings have evolved in such a way that we do most of our sleeping at night. Under normal circumstances, even so-called “night owls” tend not to stay awake all night long without very good reason. Physical pain, insomnia, or intense anxiety may banish sleep from our eyes, but so also might sheer anticipation or overwhelming joy. A sense of urgency may compel us to remain awake, when something or someone simply cannot or will not wait until morning: a newborn infant, a dying friend, or an impending deadline. Night may afford a precious window of opportunity, when the world is quiet and we are unburdened by the duties of our waking hours. Artists, writers, musicians, aspiring comedians: all these know a form of passionate asceticism as they labor at their primary vocation long into the night, especially if they work during the day at other paid professions. And night has always been a sacred time for lovers of all sorts, giddy with the rush of newfound or newly rekindled intimacy. The night hours become an inner sanctum of privacy enfolding the union of lover and beloved.
In today’s gospel lesson we encounter one of the few, tantalizing glimpses of the nocturnal life of Jesus – who loses sleep for the love of God.
“Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”
In one line, Luke’s subtle highlights and shadows render not just a person, but a personality. In Luke’s many portraits of Jesus, we meet a man who is drawn into intimate, moment by moment communion with the God he knew as Father. We encounter a person filled with power by the Spirit of God, led by the Spirit to astonishing new heights and depths of self-offering. It should come as no surprise, then, that Luke’s Jesus spends the whole night in prayer.
Isaiah 55: 6 – 11
Psalm 34: 15 – 22
Matthew 6: 7 – 15
Several years ago, Brother Robert and I found ourselves in a small, subterranean chapel on top of the Mount of Olives, within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. The chapel where we were had once been a cave, but over the centuries had been dug out and expanded, and then a newer, larger, modern church had been built over this cave chapel. The floor around the altar was littered with scraps of paper on which people had written their prayers, and then dropped through a grille in the floor of the church above us, down into this smaller cave chapel where Robert and I stood. We were there with Sr Elspeth, an American, who had begun her religious life as a Sister of the Order of Saint Anne here in Arlington, but the deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized that it was to the contemplative life that she was called, and so there she was, a Carmelite sister of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing Brother Robert and me the cave where tradition tells us that Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
I sometimes reflect on living the monastic life – how all-consuming it can be. There is always the next thing, and it can be very demanding. But the other week I was talking to my niece Katharine. She had a baby last year and she adores him, but she was telling me what hard work it is – day and night looking after a young child, on call 24 hours a day. Many of you will have had that experience and know exactly what it is like.
I remember a remarkable woman in my parish in England. She had five young children. When I used to visit there it was a maelstrom as they all came bounding up to the front door to greet me. So much energy! So much noise! I said to her once, “Gosh, how do you manage? How do you cope?” She said, “Well, I’ll show you.” We went into the hall and she opened the walk-in cupboard under the stairs, where most people stored their vacuum cleaners. I looked in, and there was a cushion on the floor and a candle. She said, “Every morning I go in there for 20 minutes, and spend time with God.” The children all knew that that was Mum’s special time. In fact, she put a sign on the door when she was in there. The children would never disturb her for those precious 20 minutes. “And that,” she said, “is what keeps me not just sane, but actually very happy.”
Who is more important? We compare power and privilege, background, connection, skill and status. Earlier in the chapter for today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples asked: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”[i] What’s the top which then defines the whole, including us? We wrestle for rank and worry about worth.
Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[ii] Become like children. Change your perspective. Rather than seeking power, skill, and status, acknowledge your need. Ask for help. Let yourself be helped and held. Relish wonder and love without embarrassment. Experiment, imagine, and playfully discover new ways of being. Gaze, dance, build, and fly. Become like children.
Who is more important? Each one. “Welcome one such child in my name, and you welcome me,” says Jesus. Woe to any who would “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus warns. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.”[iii]