Sermon, 1/1/23: Traditions Matter!

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Feast of the Holy Name

Psalm 8; Numbers 6:22–27; Galatians 4:4–7; Luke 2:15–21

After eight days had passed, it was time … and he was called Jesus.” 
Luke 2:21

In a world anxious to get somewhere fast—I suppose in order to see what is at the end of the road?—the observance this year of Christmas 2022 and New Year 2023 ranks high in its push to move us swiftly along.  This year appears more rushed.  Indeed, the Twelve Days of Christmas remain.  Yet, something seems to be missing.  “Whatever happened to the First Sunday after Christmas, when we get to sing more of those beautiful carols?” lamented a member of the congregation.  “Whatever happened to the First Sunday after Christmas” is called this year the “Feast of the Holy Name.”  This latter is observed every year in our liturgy, but rarely on a Sunday.  And what is this “Feast of the Holy Name?”

That New Year’s Day follows Christmas Day by seven days is tradition on display and accepted without objection.  What is rare, however, is that Christmas Day occurred on a Sunday.  The last such occurrence that placed Christmas and New Year’s Day on Sunday was in 2017, and now of course 2023, six years later.  We do not question this alignment, because for centuries we in the western world have lived lives according to decisions made centuries ago, when the religious world collided with the secular world.  Permit me a brief foray into that history. 

We owe this current ordering to Pope Gregory XIII, who decided (A.D. 1582) to rearrange the calendar, such that Christmas aligned with the observance of Easter, when the early Church celebrated that feast central to Christian belief.  Gregory was correcting some flaws which he saw in a calendar set in 45 B.C. by Julius Caesar, the ruler of Rome.  For reasons of his own administration, Caesar had set 1 January as the beginning of the New Year.  He had chosen to set the Roman god Janus as the first month, as Janus was depicted as having two faces, one that allowed him to look back and one to look forward.  Today, various cultures set still within their national borders their own calendars.  However, for reasons of commerce, globally nations follow the Gregorian Calendar.

That may address one question.  However, what is this Feast of the Holy Name?  Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – Lent – Easter – Pentecost, even Ascension, are all familiar, one says.  But Holy Name?  Is that a new holy day?  Although not cited in our Book of Records, the Feast of the Holy Name has a long and venerable history.  In the 15th century, two Franciscan monks, Bernardino of Sienna (1380 – 1444) and Giovanni Capistrano (1386 – 1456) encouraged people to engage in devotion of Christ’s Name.  In 1530 the church acknowledged this religious movement of the Franciscans and set the date for 14 January, which was moved eventually to 1 January.

With that historical background established, we come to the gospel for today which brings with it its own biblically based history.  I propose that what we learn is worth considering, namely God gives into human hands small tasks that have long-lasting consequences.  In the period which we have designated as Advent, we become each year reacquainted with the two individuals in Christian history who are central to the birth of Jesus: Mary and Joseph.  We acknowledge that Mary and Joseph were the most unlikely pair to be chosen as the conduit for God’s direct entry into human history.  Mary was not born into royalty.  She was a commoner.  Joseph was self-employed.  He was a carpenter who, if we think of the role of contemporary carpenters, namely how highly sought after and compensated in today’s society such professionals are, was a man of some standing, but still not of the royalty who lived in palace.  He could, though, trace his ancestry to David, a renowned king of Israel.  That was all which, in today’s vernacular, Joseph had going for him.

There was still something else that Joseph had going for himself and Mary for herself, something which merits our consideration as followers of Jesus the Christ.  They had listened to the word of God as given them by messengers from God, and not only did they listen, but they followed the word that had been given them.  When the child was born, Joseph was to give him the name Jesus, and both, being devout followers of God’s word and adherents to tradition, took the young baby to be presented to God’s service in the Temple in Jerusalem, which, as declared in Jewish Law, was to take place on the eighth day after birth.  It was their obedience to tradition that set the path which prepared Jesus for his own ministry.  Traditions matter.  Traditions ground us in our rush to get somewhere fast.

The messenger from God, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel (1:21) directed Joseph to give the Messiah of God the name “Jesus,” (Yeshua, translated as Joshua).

Holy Writ provides us with other names: Prince of Peace,  Savior, Redeemer, Bread of Life, Lord, Wonderful Counselor, Son of the Living God, Light of the World, Only Begotten Son, Beloved Son—all of which direct or point us to the one and the same, namely “Emmanuel” or God with us.”

You might well ask why that ancient ritual of presenting their son in the Temple in Jerusalem has merit in 2023.  My response is a simple one, and I make it personal, allowing you to fill in the blanks in your own lives.  As a member of the clergy—you know, that professional class—I rush often ahead, proclaiming the word of God and urging other to do the same, when often I should slow my pace, to a velocity that allows me to hear what others are saying.  Mary and Joseph are there to remind me that, if I listen to others, what I might hear, is not my own voice.  Rather, what I might discern/hear, is what we respond after hearing scriptural reading: ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.’  As God spoke to Mary and Joseph via messengers, so is it that there will surely be those 21st century messengers in 2023, the year now open to us, who might have something to say to me, and perhaps to you also.  

In their rare alignment, to wit: falling on a Sunday, the Feast of the Holy Name and New Year’s Day provide us an opportunity to reconsider how we might proceed and allow ourselves to be filled with the wonder of Mary, the obedience of Joseph, the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the determination of the magi, and the peace of the Christ child whose name is Jesus.  Amen.