Happy New Year. I can’t remember the last time I celebrated a service on New Year’s Day. It was probably the last time that New Year’s Day was on a Sunday.
January 1st, New Year’s Day, is not a liturgical celebration in the church. There’s nothing in the life of Jesus that speaks of New Year’s Day as being significant, although during his lifetime Jesus would have known this as the beginning of the year. January 1st became New Year’s Day in the Roman Empire 45 some years before Jesus was born. It was Julius Cesar who was the Emperor who moved the calendar from being based on the cycles of the moon to being based on the sun.
Reportedly Julius Cesar made January the beginning of the year because of the God Janus, for whom the month January is named. Janus was the God of gateways and doorways and his head has two faces, one looking forward and one looking back, and apparently Julius Cesar thought this would be a great time to start the year, in a month named after a God who could see both the past and the future.
And that’s what we do at the New Year, we look both to the past, the year we just had, and to the future, the year that is to come, beginning today. Of course we could do that in March or September or whenever. But there is something about this shared cultural experience of New Year’s that gives it a deeper meaning.
The rituals that we associate with New Year’s are not specifically religious, but there are rituals. There are practices for these days like staying up until midnight, counting down, watching the ball drop in Times’ Suare, wearing funny hats and singing songs you don’t sing any other time of the year, like Auld Langs Syne. In places like Honduras, as soon as the clock strikes midnight on the 1st, people set off fireworks and they shoot guns into the air which seems like a horrible idea but is part of the ritual. There are certain foods that people eat at New Year’s, and customs people follow like making best-of lists and making resolutions for the year to come.
And I think all of these rituals are important, even though they are not specifically religious, because they add to the meaning of this day. So January 1st is not just another day but it is more than that.
The religious celebration we have this morning in the Feast of the Holy Name is also of a ritual of looking ahead. This practice we see in the Gospel today comes from the Jewish tradition of circumcising and naming a male baby on the 8th day of his life. And that is still the practice of many Jews today. And it is an ancient custom. If you remember, in Genesis there was a moment when Abram accepted the covenant from God and he and all the Israelites agreed to become circumcised, and at that moment Abram was given his new name, Abraham, as a sign of the pact. This is the same tradition we hear about today.
Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to be named on the 8th day. But with Jesus it is more than just a normal ritual, it is also a fulfillment of prophecy. God sent this baby to be the Messiah, and naming him Jesus helps fulfill that prophecy.
But naming the baby Jesus also does something more – it helps state his purpose. It helps proclaim to the world and all who meet him who this baby is and what he has come to do. For the name Jesus means “The Lord is Salvation.” And so today as they bestow this name upon him, they are also declaring to the world that this is the Savior. His name signifies who he is and what he has come to do.
And so this morning, as part of the Feast of Holy Name, I wonder if you have thought about the significance of your name, if it has one at all? In my case, my name is Tom and not Thomas, and you could say has no meaning because Tom is generally just a shortened nickname for Thomas, but in my case it’s all I have. So I make the best of it. My wife’s name, on the other hand, is Sagrario, and in Spanish that means Tabernacle, so it’s a word rich in meaning and purpose as that which holds within it the holy.
And perhaps your name has a meaning that we would recognize. I think about Flor, who goes to the 12:15 service, whose name means flower, or Angelika, whose name is related to the angels, or Donna which is a name that comes from the Italian meaning madam. Many people are named after someone in the Bible, including all the Thomases, the Marks and Matts and Johns and the many, many Marys and Marias.
On the feast day of Holy Name it’s interesting to think about what our names mean to us. Obviously, they are connected to our sense of self. And from a very young age we are taught that we are Tom or we are Flor or we are Matt, or whoever, and that we should respond to these names because this is how the world sees us and certainly how the world recognizes us. But what speaks of our purpose?
The spiritual meaning behind this feast is that Jesus’s parents are not just giving him the name, they are proclaiming his purpose. And it’s not a coincidence that we are here invited to do the same. Here at the beginning of the year, perhaps today God invites us to consider what might be our purpose for this year, and for us to think about how God might want us to live and what God might want us to do in 2023.
Maybe in recognition that Jesus receives his holy name today we could holy name something about ourselves. I wonder what the angels have told you about who you are and about what you bring to the world this year.
You might say – I have no idea who I am to God and what my gifts are, something that God has given you to share, something God has inviteed you to be this year, and to take the time to name it.
It is good to proclaim things about ourselves, because so many great things go unacknowledged. So many important things in life go unnamed. And notice that you don’t name just anything in your life, you name the things that count. And the things you want to remember.
So what do you want to remember about yourself as you move into this year? What important piece of information counts?
I wonder: what can you hold onto this year when things get hard and life is challenging and you feel like you can barely keep going? Whatever setbacks we encounter this year, we would do well to remember that we have a greater purpose in God, and that the temporary challenges we face are nothing compared to the great power that God has set within us. For it’s not just Jesus, the angels have blessed us as well.
I think God has given us an invitation today to name something that we can carry from this feast day into tomorrow. And if you feel comfortable, I invite you to take a moment and pray, and then grab one of these little yellow slips of paper and write on it – name on it, a truth about you and who you are to God.
I am Peace, you might say. I am Strong. I am Blessed. Whatever it is. A message from the angels can take many forms. Perhaps you will write down an affirmation that you need to hear again and again, or perhaps a reminder you can say to yourself whenever it’s time: I am bold. I am unafraid. I am present to this moment.
Whatever it is, I invite you to take a couple minutes and pray and then write something down. And if you throw it out after the service, that’s fine. If you forget about it after today, no problem. If you don’t do it at all, that’s okay.
The name we present to the world is but a small part of who we really are. Who we really are is much bigger and it is wrapped up in God’s desires for us and the voices of angels that only occasionally do we stop to hear. And today can be one of those days.
Jesus Christ is new. He was just born. We are not new, but Jesus’s life within us gives us a fresh start. Today let us name before God something about ourselves that we value and wish to carry into this fresh start. Let’s take a few moments and then we will pray.