The Feast of the Holy Name, January 1, 2017
In the very name of Jesus is our prayer. The name, which was not chosen by his parents but given to them as a sign when his birth was announced by the angels; his name means, “God helps,” or “God saves.” When we invoke the name of Jesus, we are already praying, “God help us. God save us.”
On the eighth day, his parents took him to the temple, to participate in the rituals of their religion, circumcising him and naming him before God. The timing is significant: the eighth day, the day that follows a full week of creation, signifies a new creation; a new beginning; a new covenant in the body; a new name. God help us.
So while New Year’s Day is not exactly a religious holiday, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is, and it does remind us, falling as it does on New Year’s Day, of the holiness of time, and of the ritual significance of new beginnings.
There is a reason we run to rituals, to mark beginnings, endings, and intentions. It is not a silly thing to set a New Year’s resolution. It is not an insignificant undertaking, to commit to a ritual of prayer, or of healthy living, of the betterment of our relationships or of our world.
Rituals help to hold us accountable. When we say that every time we come to this table, we will remember the life and death, the resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, God help us, then that very ritual helps us to remember. The rhythm of the week of creation, and its Sabbath, and its new Sunday sanctifies our days, and helps to keep us aimed towards God, and towards the sacraments of God’s presence with us.
Part of the discipline of making a pledge to the church is that naming of intentions. If we plan to tithe, then marking that tithe out, naming it and dedicating it, will help us to keep our intentions. We don’t have to release our tax returns to one another; but naming our intentions helps us to keep them.
When we name aloud our intentions, what we will remember to do, to be, to say; then we hold ourselves accountable, and invite others to help us.
God help us, we walk with one another. We do not baptize ourselves, or celebrate alone. We do not need to carry the burdens of grief without one another. Rituals bring us together, to share the load. Jesus told his disciples, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus, whose very name is a prayer: God help us. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
The rituals of sharing, of bearing one another’s burdens, help to relieve the weight of the world upon our shoulders.
For the last twenty-five years of her life, my mother wore a locket. She had a lot of health problems – it is a testament to the curiosity of doctors that she wore the locket for so long. The doctors told her that she needed to wear an SOS bracelet; but in those days, these were plastic things like hospital ID tags, and she would literally rather die than wear such a thing every day. So my father took her shopping, and they found a locket, a big silver flapper’s compact from the 1920s, and they had it engraved, SOS. It held her emergency information, prescriptions, and pills. She wore it every day for the rest of her life.
When she died, I polished out the SOS, but the locket still held its ritual significance. It was a sign; it was a plea for help; it was a lifesaver. So I turned it into a prayer: it now holds a coiled paper with the ancient prayer, “God be in my head, and in my understanding …”
God save us; God help us.
The shared rituals of prayer, of the daily office, remembering that it is our role to pray in the morning, and at night; the rhythms of shared ritual help to keep us on track to keep our resolutions to walk with God. There are even apps and podcasts to help us keep the appointment. (I use this one.)
Rituals express the inexpressible. The bread and the wine, such ordinary things, tell us an extraordinary story, of the love of God, the incarnation of Jesus, God help us, God save us. They tell us the story of life poured out for the sake of our eternal lives; of love poured out for the sake of our salvation, our comfort, our joy.
The ritual of naming Jesus in the temple, such a simple, everyday act, expressed something beyond the imagination even of his parents, even of Simeon and Anna. The name of Jesus: God save us, God help us; it was a prayer that had already been answered. It remains our prayer.