The Dean - The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 61.10 - 62.3; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21
In the various reviews of the year that you get to read over the Christmas period, I saw one that was all about the names that the famous have given to their children during 2017
Beyoncé, of course scores highly with her two children she’s called Sir and Rumi, but others chose the names Wolf and Lyric for their little bundles of joy and one celeb the name Rainey, which sets the tone for life.
But the article I read gave the prize to one of the unlikeliest political celebrities of 2017, Jacob Rees Mogg, who has decided, over the years, to give each of his six children a string of good solid names including, for the boys, a name of a former Pope. So the latest Rees Mogg has been named Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher. I won’t be baptising him, so I won’t have to remember it all.
But a name says a lot about us and about our parents – too much I suspect in some of these instances! Take the choir with us today that always sings on this Sunday of the year, Poscimur, a name which means ‘We are called ..’ perfect for a choir looking for a name.
It’s still Christmas, the turkey may well have been eaten and the mince pies tackled, the baubles may be getting a little dusty and the poinsettia showing the signs of having been located in the wrong place, overwatered, under-watered or one of the million and one things that can seem to happen to those Mexican weeds that are our ubiquitous choice of Christmas plant, but Christmas continues and this is the seventh day of the twelve, when seven swans are swimming according to the song.
On this pivotal day the Gospel we have just heard read took us back to the events of Christmas Day, reminding us of the visit of the shepherds to the Holy Family and forwards to tomorrow, to the eighth day when, according to the law, Mary and Joseph took their child to the Temple in order that he might be circumcised and formally given a name.
St Paul in his letter to the Galatians reminds us of an important fact about Jesus that
‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’
Jesus was taken to the temple, he was circumcised and named because that was the law and as one ‘born under the law’ in order to redeem those ‘under the law’, it was right that this should take place. Jesus was there from the beginning not to destroy but to fulfil the law. And in recognition of this he was given a name by the angel, as St Luke tells us, that would resonate with anyone who heard it.
The name ‘Jesus’ is basically the same name as Joshua, Jeshua. It was he who led the people on the final stage of their journey from slavery into freedom; it was he who did what Moses, the patriarch, couldn’t. Joshua led the people through the waters of the Jordan and brought them into the land of Promise in which God’s blessings would abound and milk and honey would flow. Jesus would, in a few years time, begin his ministry down at the Jordan where a new Exodus, led by John, was beginning – but it would be Jesus who would fulfil and perfect it.
But this is not the only bit of naming that we remember in this Eucharist. Paul in his letter, from which I’ve already quoted, goes on to say something remarkable.
‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’’
It’s not just the naming of Jesus that we should be celebrating but, as it were, the re-naming of God. Names are significant and what we call one another reveals so much about the relationship that we have. When are you allowed to get familiar with someone, call them by their Christian name, call them by the name their friends call them? It’s a significant stage in any relationship.
After my dad had died when my sister and I were still very little, my Mum eventually began going out again and was taken on a blind date by some friends from church. The man she met at that dinner dance eventually became our stepfather. But what we called him was a significant journey that a six and four year old, me and my sister, managed to negotiate – first Mr Harrison, then Uncle Maurice and then Dad. It was a naming journey and that’s precisely what Jesus takes us on in relation to God.
To call God ‘Abba’ that more familiar, less formal name, the name children might use affectionately of their parent, was a huge leap of understanding of what the nature of the relationship is that we have with God. That’s the journey that Jesus goes on and the journey that he takes us on with him.
It began in that formal, law-bound way in the temple as he, like all boys was brought into the covenant relationship with God, as he was circumcised and so bore on his body the mark of his inheritance. But then he takes his friends into a new covenant, a covenant of love – he bears on his body the marks of that love and in that relationship a new understanding of God develops and a new freedom is given to us.
When I normally quote from a poem by T S Eliot it’s usually something mysterious and wonderful. But alongside poems like ‘The Wasteland’ Eliot also wrote a book that’s become famous through the Lloyd Webber musical ‘Cats’. The book is called ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ and the first poem he writes is about the naming of cats. In it he says
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
But then he concludes
When you notice a cat in profound meditation
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
The wonder of Christmas is that the ineffable is spoken. St John tells us, as we remembered on Christmas Day, that ‘In the beginning was the Word’ and most wonderfully that ‘the Word was made flesh’ – the unspoken, unspeakable word was not just spoken but lived. The Jews, living under the law, were unable, forbidden to speak the name of God but in Jesus, born under that law, humanity is redeemed and enabled, freed to call God, Abba, Father, the sign of our new relationship with God.
The ineffable, unknowable, unspeakable God we see in the crib, we adore with shepherds and angels, we name him Jesus and he names his father, Abba, and tells us to say ‘Our Father’, every time we pray.
To misquote Eliot
Our mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
Speak it in your heart as you come to Communion, speak that name in your prayers and hear God speak your name back to you, with the voice of love.