A Common New Year – January 1, 2017
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
The Church has never quite known what to do with New Year’s Day. After all, the New Year begins on January 1 according to the Roman calendar, and the Roman calendar was pagan in origin, structured around very different ideas about religion and God. At first, the Church attempted to respond to New Year’s Day by pretending that it simply didn’t exist. But the people wouldn’t let the church forget it; they participated in New Year’s festivities regardless. So the Church decided, instead, to rebel against the secular custom of New Year’s Day by creating a time of fasting that would contrast markedly with New Year’s celebrations. On one New Year’s Day fast, the eminent church father Augustine mounted the pulpit with disdain and declared: “during these days when they revel, we observe a fast in order to pray for them…let them get drunk; you should fast. Let them rush to the theater; you should rush to church.” But that didn’t work either, and eventually the Church decided to co-opt New Year’s Day and found itself holding a celebration of its own on January 1st: the feast of the Circumcision of Christ.
It might sound odd to you to ring in the New Year by remembering and celebrating a circumcision, and if you want to get a taste of just how odd it could be, I encourage you to look up some of the strange hymns that were sung on this day in the past. But the connection between the circumcision of Jesus and January 1st actually makes a lot of sense. Jewish tradition called for infant boys to be circumcised and named on the eighth day after their birth, and according to Luke, Jesus was circumcised and named eight days after his birth in accordance with this custom. The Circumcision was thus an observance that was biblical in basis and in all likelihood a real historical event. And if the Circumcision of Christ were to be celebrated, January 1st, as the eighth day of Christmas, would be the most logical day on which to celebrate it. Nonetheless, the focus on circumcision must have been too much for some, as this day was re-characterized as the “Feast of the Holy Name” in the twentieth century, a change that shifted the emphasis of the feast towards the name Jesus received on the day of his circumcision and away from whatever happened to the baby’s genitals.
January 1st may no longer be called the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, but it still seems weird to have an entire church festival dedicated to a name. Yet we should remember that the Name of God holds a certain mystique in both Judaism and Christianity. The Hebrew Bible depicts the Name of God as both completely beyond human comprehensibility and full of tremendous power: when Moses asks God what his name is, God suggests the question is unanswerable by responding with the ineffable “I AM WHO I AM,” while later God also bestows upon Aaron and his sons the power to bless the people by suggesting that they use the divine Name as their instrument to do so. The Hebrew Bible actually uses many names for God, but one of the names it uses most frequently, Yahweh, was considered to be so mysterious and to have so much potency that many Jews believed they should not speak it aloud or even write it down in its full form.
Christians continued the Jewish practice of treating the Name of God with special reverence. They, too, believed that God could be referred to in many ways, and they added to the Jewish list of names for God names like the persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and other names, like Jesus, Word, Christ, Messiah and Emmanuel. They also shared the Jewish perspective that the Name of God was immensely, enigmatically powerful and deserved utmost respect: the letter to Philippians proclaims that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,” and a whole school of thought arose during the Renaissance devoted to honoring the Name of Jesus. Even today, many of us still bow our heads whenever we say the Name of Jesus in the liturgy.
For both Jews and Christians and throughout the Scriptures that were important to them both, the Name of God was more than just one name: it was instead a collection of cascading, overlapping terms that spoke to the varied aspects of God’s nature and together represented the overwhelming might and majesty of God. In honoring God’s Name, we do not merely commemorate a small symbol of who God is; rather, we celebrate the entirety of a God whom no one name could ever totally capture.
The Name the baby is given on the day of his circumcision, however, is the very specific Name of Jesus. When we honor the Name of Jesus, we recognize only one of God’s labels, a label that has its own particular connotations and implications. Unlike some of God’s other names, Jesus was a name that had roots in a concrete and particular time and place. Indeed, the name ‘Jesus’ was an extremely popular name in first-century Palestine, a fact that ties the historical person of Jesus not only to a unique society and culture of origin but also to an average, unremarkable location within the human social structure. Jesus was no otherworldly, all-powerful deity dodging our attempts to classify him and requiring all sorts of strange, mysterious titles; he was simple and normal, earthly and real.
Ironically, this “Feast of the Holy Name” was first concocted by a clergy elite to thwart the desires of the common people, yet we celebrate on it a Savior who was utterly common, who became as ordinary as he could be in order to demonstrate just how truly holy the ordinary was. In becoming human, Jesus destroyed our preconceptions of an eternally distant, forever invincible God. Jesus became accessible to us and weak for us, abandoning heaven so that we might enter it and losing power so that power might become ours.
What New Year’s Message, then, does Jesus have for us? Perhaps it is less that we should become more like gods—by shedding a few extra pounds, by getting ourselves in line, by approaching the finest levels of lovely and perfect—and more that we should find a way to become more at home with ourselves—contented with what is ordinary, rejoicing in the conventional, reveling in our commonness. Not every dream has to be big; not every ambition has to be wild. I pray that your New Year may be extraordinarily common, exceptionally average, daringly simple—a year that God might just want to show up in.
1 Philip H. Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals and Commemorations was helpful in learning about the history of New Year’s, the Circumcision of Christ and Holy Name within the Church. The Augustine quote comes from his volume.