Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Homily: the Octave of Christmas: 2014

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

The Church has never been quite sure what to call the eighth day after the birth of Jesus. The Gospel for this day is the only constant: the circumcision, the naming, and the conception of Jesus in the womb of the blessed Virgin. But each of these events have competed for our attention. The earliest title for January 1st was in the liturgy of the city of Rome: the feast of Mary the Mother of God, a title restored in the Roman Church after Vatican II. But from the 13th or 14th century the octave of Christmas was called the Circumcision of Christ, a custom followed in the Prayer Book up until modern times. Anglicans of late seem to have preferred calling this day “The Holy Name of Jesus.”  But what each of these titles do is set before us again the before us the great mystery of the Incarnation: the Word made flesh.

He was conceived in the womb: .The emphasis on Mary is in fact not an emphasis on her at all but an emphasis on who Jesus is. As Dr. Mascall once noted the title Mother of God ‘is the most theological of her titles’. The third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 insisted that Mary must be called Theotokos or Mother of God because the child born from her womb was the Only-begotten Son of the Father, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father. Men had and have recoiled from this robust assertion of the mystery of Incarnation. It is a sad fact that in the Churches which emerged from the Reformation this all together necessary and scandalous assertion of the divinity of Christ disappeared entirely from the liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer is a notable example. It is little surprise that in the centuries which followed the Incarnation was viewed by some as a relic of ancient superstition and something that could be dispensed with.

He was circumcised: One thing which many Christians do not seem to understand about the modern world is that the problem is not that people are too materialistic but that they are too spiritual. It was Pope John XXIII in 1962 who dropped the title “The Circumcision” and substituted simply “the Octave of Christmas”. The circumcision is a bit too physical for many modern Christians, a feast which celebrates a surgical procedure. A consideration, which I suspect was also behind the 1979 American Prayer Book’s substitution of the Holy Name of Jesus for the Circumcision. But medieval Christians, however maligned by moderns, delighted in the sheer physicality of the thing. God became man. It was not a case of God masquerading as man for a time but God took our humanity completely, body, soul, will that he might redeem it. The body which God took was one that could bleed, that could feel pain, that could die. Not only that it was a body, soul and will governed by the Law. “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons”.

He was called Jesus: I am afraid that you cannot really escape the problem of the materialism of the Incarnation by substituting the Holy Name for the Circumcision. God has a name, which you can only get out of him by wrestling with him, by taking off your shoes and getting burned by burning bushes. And when he tells us his Name, it raises more questions than it answers: Yahweh: “HE WHO IS”.  But the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb is a perfectly ordinary Jewish name: Jesus, i.e. Joshua, the patriarch who led the Jews into the promised land, who won victories for God’s people and so a name as common as dirt. There are parents who are determined to give their children unique names, names that no one else has. So we get kids named Tempest, Violina, Rhythm, Mahogany,  among the top names for children born in 2014. God is less discerning. An ordinary name will do because what the Word and Son of God intends to do is transform the ordinary by becoming ordinary himself. Now we know what to call the high mysterious Unmoved  Mover, his Name is Jesus.

It takes more than eight days to understand the mystery of the Word made flesh. But we can understand this much. God had to stage an emergency rescue operation for the human race. It was not enough to just send us a new moral crusader, a charismatic community organizer, a guru. He had to send us ourselves by becoming what we are that we might become what he is.

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

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