New Birth and Suffering

1st January 2012

The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

I came across this riddle: what belongs to us, but other people use it more than we do? Answer our name. Names are very important. When people use our name, remember our name, we feel recognized and acknowledged for who we are. People can of course use our name in an insulting and degrading way. Prisoners being stripped of their names and being known only by a number, is a way of stripping them of their identity and individuality.

Sometimes the name we are known by in our family or amongst our close friends is a nickname and that speaks of our identity and our relationship with people. In some cultures, names have significant meanings, perhaps signifying their clan, or the gifts people hope the child will embody. Sometimes the name conveys something about the child or the context into which they were born. Perhaps in your family children are named after a relative or there is a tradition of passing a name on.

In todayʼs Gospel, Mary and Joseph name their child Jesus, which means “God saves”. This was the name given to Mary for the child when Gabriel visited her. They named Jesus on the day he was circumcised. Christmas as we all know is a festival much more popular than Easter. It is so much easier to relate to a vulnerable new born baby. A vulnerable baby we can, in our thoughts and feelings, control and tuck away Our society finds suffering and death hard to deal with, yet we are surrounded by it. Our Christian faith has something to say about our experience of suffering and this reality, but often we donʼt allow it to come through. On this feast the circumcision is saying something important not only about Jesus being fully human, but also the link into Jesusʼ suffering and death.

In the rite of circumcision, flesh is cut and bleeds. At the end of Jesusʼ life his flesh again will be cut and he will shed his blood. The shepherds who we hear about again today, the shepherdʼs who were despised by orthodox Jews because they couldnʼt keep all the rules and laws, they and their kind were the ones who looked after the lambs to be sacrificed at Passover. The first ones outside the family to know of this special birth, of God coming among us in our flesh were these outcasts, who raised the sacrificial lambs.

Whenever we find ourselves settling down to be comfortable in our faith, we need perhaps to find ourselves challenged by the demands of the Gospel. The beginning of a New Year provides us with the opportunity of asking ourselves two fundamental questions. “Who am I?” and “Where am I?”

Yes I am known by my name, but who am I really? Do I feel I am really myself, the person God calls me to be, my true self? We are each on a journey, a journey through life, how are we doing? What would we like to change in our personal life? Is there a step we could make towards that change to become more our true, God-given self? Are we going to take it and be prepared to go on moving one step at a time?

As we cross the threshold into this new year, “Where are we in our life and where are we going? Where would we like to be going, where would we like to be growing in our inner life?”

I thought Archbishop Rowan words in his Christmas sermon put it far better than I ever could.
“Very near the heart of Christian faith and practice is this encounter with God’s questions, ‘who are you, where are you?’ Are you on the side of the life that lives in Jesus, the life of grace and truth, of unstinting generosity and unsparing honesty, the only life that gives life to others? Or are you on your own side, on the side of disconnection, rivalry, the hoarding of gifts, the obsession with control? ... What we say or do in our response to Jesus is our way of discovering for ourselves and showing to one another what is real in and for us ... the truth is still an uncompromising one: if you cannot or will not respond, you are walking away from reality into a realm of trackless fogbound falsehood.”

We rejoice as we commemorate the birth of Jesus, who came among us as God incarnate, God made flesh. The baby grows into childhood and into manhood. Our God doesn’t stay incarnate only as a baby. The reality of the incarnation, leads through the reality of suffering and death to new life and Resurrection. Are we prepared to play our part in this reality of sharing our faith? The good news our society and culture so badly needs to hear.

Circumcision was the sign of God’s Covenant with his chosen people the Jews. Jesus brings the new Covenant of God with all his people. This Eucharist, this Thanksgiving, this Holy Communion Service is a sign, a mark of that new Covenant. Jesus gives himself to each one of us under the form of bread and wine. He fills us with the grace to take the steps we need to take to follow him.

I would like to finish with the words the Methodists use to recommit themselves to God’s covenant at this time of year. A commitment which is very challenging to live out.

The introduction reads: Eternal God, in your faithful and enduring love you call us to share in your gracious covenant in Jesus Christ. In obedience we hear and accept your commands; in love, we seek to do your perfect will; with joy we offer ourselves anew to you. We are no longer our own but yours.

The people commit themselves in the words:
I am no longer my own but yours, Your will, not mine, be done in all things, where ever you may place me, in all that I do and in all that I may endure;

when there is work for me and when there is none; when I am troubled and when I am at peace.

Your will be done, when I am valued and when I am disregarded; when I find fulfillment and when it is is lacking; when I have all things and when I have nothing.

I willingly offer all that I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose.
Gracious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours, May it be so for ever. Let this covenant now made on earth be fulfilled in heaven.

Amen and may it be so with all of us.

Sister Anita CSC

at All Saintsʼ and St. Peter and St. Paulʼs Clevedon