The following sermon was preached by current corps member Ben Miller at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (Englewood, NJ) on January 1, 2021. The primary text was Colossians 2:6-12.
It’s not just New Year’s Day (Happy New Year, by the way!) Today the wisdom of the Church appoints the Feast of the Holy Name, one of the more interesting features of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Until the current 1979 Book of Common Prayer, Episcopalians called Holy Name “The Feast of the Circumcision.” This fact is instructive.
So Holy Name is really about two things: the naming of Jesus, and the circumcision of Jesus. Christ receives that hallowed name according to the instruction of the angel, his name which means “YHWH [The LORD] saves.” In his circumcision Jesus, the Eternally Begotten Son through whom all things exist, empties himself as an infant to submit his flesh to the covenant of Abraham. His entire body, soul, and divinity is now placed in covenant with the God of Israel. The Lord of Israel is now himself an Israelite.
It reminds me of a petition in the Great Litany: “by the mystery of thy holy Incarnation… and submission to the Law… Good Lord, deliver us” (BCP p.149) Two thousand years of anti-Semitism later, Christians still don’t do a good job of thinking of our Savior as a Jew. But moreover, it is not just our Savior, but the shape of salvation itself, that is Jewish. And that is the key to receiving this holy day with joy rather than puzzlement. The incarnate Christmas wisdom of salvation is at play here in Christ’s circumcision and in his naming: Christ, the Eternal Son of God, begins to renew creation, heralding the salvation and restoration of all things, by becoming a participant in it.
Today’s reading manifests this truth that is the key to Christmas, the very thing that makes any Christian life intelligible at all: “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (v. 9). Glory to God in the highest! And if Deity dwells bodily for Christ, so too for us: our destiny is for God to dwell with us, Emmanuel, transforming human life from the inside out with His grace and his love.
In this feast we commemorate this fact: The Word took on flesh. And it was not just a generic human flesh. It was Israelite flesh. Rejoice in God’s wisdom here! It makes all the difference. To be Christian is to be in Christ, and to be in Christ means one cannot sidestep the people of Christ. In Christ, and all the ways Christians try to live in Christ, “rooted and built up in him,” as the Colossians reading says (v.7), we are being marked by God Himself.
We are still in Christmas, even if our culture tells us otherwise. And more importantly, we are still in Christmas, even if our hearts tell us otherwise. I’m sure most of us were happy to put 2020 behind us. It is news to absolutely nobody that 2020 is an awful, regrettable year full of awful, regrettable things. I certainly regret much about it. For most of my adult life I have never really come to a new year ready to party, or with that cloying optimism and cheer that our culture demands. I usually just wonder what I could have done, should have done, must have done to make it a great year, and sigh in a cold grey December night and January day what must be done to make up for it in the year ahead.
That is the complication of trying to put a terrible year behind you. The seasons and years of our lives leave a mark that doesn’t go away. Time has this funny way of marking us, and carving us and molding us. If we are honest with ourselves, we don’t always control it. In that sense all those regrettable things about time and memory is a doppelgänger to circumcision. Your memory bleeds. You are marked, whether you like it or not.
But the times of our life are in God’s hands, and in Christ’s. “Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,” sings the old hymn. This includes the times and seasons of our lives; Jesus reigns over them in wisdom and majesty as an infant! There is no way that time marks us that can escape the wisdom of God. Christ’s marking of circumcision, his participation in creation, is in itself the heralding of how he wishes to save the creation. Christ’s marking now marks the times of our lives permanently. The renewal is happening. The end of the Colossians reading says today, “in him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands… buried with him in baptism… raised with him through faith” (vv. 11, 12).
Earthly time is brittle stone in our hands and soft, wet clay in God’s. In participating in the human and earthly marks of time, Christ transforms them. That is the promise of Christmas and the particular promise of this day. Rejoice.