Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Holy Name – January 1, 2012
What’s in a name? The feast we observe today is centered around one—the Holy Name of Jesus. Many years ago, this octave day of Christmas was called the Feast of the Circumcision. Wise decision, methinks, that the church renamed it as it did. Yet the final verses of Luke’s Gospel remind us that, like any Jewish boy in his time, Jesus had to undergo this prescribed ritual eight days after his birth and formally be given his name.
What’s in a name? According to Matthew, Jesus is the name given to Joseph when the angel assures him that Mary’s child is conceived by the Holy Spirit. According to Luke, the name is given to Mary by the angel Gabriel before the baby is conceived. Regardless of which account is accurate—and perhaps they both are—this name is significant. The language in which the Gospel was first written was Greek and Jesus is the Latin form of the Greek Iesous and the transliteration of the Hebrew Jeshua or Joshua. It means “God saves.”
It might surprise you that there were a lot of “Jesuses” running around in those days because the name was quite common. Archeologists have unearthed 71 Yesuas from the period of Jesus’ death. For those who speak Arabic it is pronounced Isa, in Chinese he is Yesu, in Italian Gesu and in the Shona language of Zimbabwe the Messiah is called Jeso. Every language in the world has its own variation of the name. And what about his last name? No, it was not Christ—a translation of the Greek for “the anointed one”—but rather Yeshua Bar Yehosef which is “Jesus, son of Joseph,” the way in which Galileans distinguished themselves, adding “son of” and their father’s name.
So, in the world of his time, this eight-day-old infant bears one of the most ordinary and common names—like John or Mary. There was little about it that suggested exceptionality, holiness, or distinction. But it was the name appointed for him by God and delivered by an angel.
We might question what kind of likeness this garden-variety name Jesus would have for the one who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Maybe the answer lies in the simple fact that, in God’s realm, the extraordinary is almost always expressed through the ordinary, the spiritual almost always expressed through the material, and grace can most often be discovered in the least likely place we might expect to find it. Grace happens in the very place we live and move and have our being—yes, typically, right under our noses.
What’s in a name? We frequently hear someone say, “I can remember faces, but I can’t remember names.” There’s something odd about that declaration. People are their names. Faces change over time. If you doubt that take a look through the family photo album and then go look in the mirror. Our faces change and we develop bags and sags but our names do not.
It is in the remembering and recognition of names that we pay attention to others. Long after we are dust, our names will remain. We have been remembering your names when you come to the Communion Table for the past nine years, addressing you by your name as we give you Holy Food and Drink for your journey. We do that because there is much in a name. People are their names and our names signify that we are God’s beloved ones, each a unique heir of God’s kingdom.
Now the Church calendar this January 1 may say “Feast of the Holy Name,” but in the United States the great majority of people are observing New Year’s Day and many began the celebration last night either with a time of quiet reflection or with great revelry. This day may be a good time for a bit of exploration, first to ponder the name of God in Jesus, learn anew what it means for us and time for an exploration of how we are named—by our families, our career paths, by the culture and society, but most importantly by God.
What names “stick?” What names keep us “stuck?” How does God’s invitation and the blessing of being a child of and heir of God reorder our sense of identity and our purpose on this planet? Today, then, is an excellent beginning of a new year—an opportunity to begin anew, slates fresh and clean, in the company of the One who created, redeemed, and loved us from the beginning of time.
What’s in a name? There is yet another name that is in the forefront on this New Year’s Day—the name of this faith community, St. Paul’s on the Green founded in this city two hundred and seventy-five years ago. We are the second oldest congregation in the city and the eleventh oldest in the diocese. We have a rich, exciting, sometimes difficult, yet wonderful history.
A few morsels to start the year off: This is the fifth church building that has been erected here as a house of worship.
The first missionary priest who served St. Paul’s is purported to have walked here from Fairfield to conduct services. The second church, was destroyed by Gen. Tryon when he burned Norwalk in 1779.
One of our rectors, the Rev. Jeremiah Leaming was jailed because he was a loyalist and provided with no bed or fire, resulting in an infection in his hip rendering him lame for the remainder of his life. After the American Revolutionary War and his release from jail, he took an active role in bringing the Episcopal Church to Connecticut. His peers chose him to be the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States but he declined due to his ill health. The choice for Bishop then went to Samuel Seabury who, after his return from Scotland, consecrated our third church building—the very first in all the thirteen original colonies to be consecrated by a bishop.
That is just the tip of the ice berg. There is so much more to recall and savor! Over the course of the year, we will include snipits of our history in the weekly Sunday announcements and in a commemorative booklet that details our history in text and photographs. This is, indeed, a time for great pride in our parish’s name and what this faith community has meant for the city, the diocese, and the church at large.
As we officially inaugurate the celebration of the 275th anniversary of the founding of the founding of St. Paul’s, we ponder the Holy Name of Jesus—a name that embodies all that God intends for us—and we ponder our own identity in the name we bear and by which others come to know us.
What’s in a name? A long history of salvation, healing, grace, reconciliation, blessing, forgiveness, generosity, and love without condition. It was all God’s idea first and is incarnate in the name of Jesus. May it seep into the DNA of our individual names and lives as well.
While we rejoice in the great name of this faith community and its place in the history of our city and in the lives of so many people over the past two-hundred-seventy-five years, we must also recognize the sacred duty we have to ensure that what has been handed down to us will be cared for, cherished, given new growth and life, be ever faithful to the Great Commission by opening doors and welcoming all, and in time be passed on with gratitude to those yet to come in the centuries to follow. For the amazing blessing of what we have inherited, we can and must do no less.
There is another name by which we are addressed in the Scripture: “Living stones”—so appropriate for a people whose place of worship is made of stone, in a city block surrounded by a stone wall, and where the lives of those who have gone before us are memorialized in the fascinating gravestones in the church yard.
Listen to the words we find in the Peter’s first letter to the church: “Living stones, chosen and precious, let yourselves be built in a spiritual household. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, God’s own people, in order that you might proclaim the mighty works of God who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.”
May they guide us in our work through this landmark year and may God give us the grace to be true to them, faithful to the mission to which they call us, and grateful for all that we have received. Thanks be to God.