St Bride's: Sermons

The Naming and Circumcision of Christ

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Today, 1st January, the Church's calendar commemorates the Naming and Circumcision of Christ.  Jesus, the son of Jewish parents, in accordance with Jewish custom and practice, became a full member of the covenant through the rite of circumcision, just as we welcome children, and sometimes adults, into the family of Christ through Christian baptism.  And, just as in baptism, it was an occasion on which he was formally named before God: the name that we know as Jesus - Iesous - is simply the Greek form of the common Jewish name Joshua, which means 'God saves' - so both the ritual and the naming of Christ served to give him identity, both culturally and religiously.

The names we are given at birth, whether we happen to like them or not, often give very important clues to our identity.  A surname can sometimes reveal much about the cultural or ethnic background of our families, or the families into which we have married.  Similarly, our forenames can often reveal quite a lot about where we have come from and the kinds of people our parents were.

My elder daughter is called Sinéad Joyce.  Any one seeing her name written down is likely to deduce she is of Irish origin, and Roman Catholic.  Both of which happen to be correct - her grandfather was from County Mayo; she has an aunt with exactly the same name; and she was baptised, made her first holy communion and was confirmed in the Catholic Church.  But if you didn't know her name, you would not automatically be able to deduce either of those things about her on first meeting her - not least because she was born and grew up in this country, and so she speaks with an English accent.  Names can be interestingly revealing about who and what we are, and where we have come from. 

And they can also reveal quite a lot about the values and aspirations of our parents.  There was a girl at my school whose name was Zoë, who had brothers called Erl and Rollo - which, in a Sussex comprehensive full of 'London-overspill' kids, was just unheard of.  And the story she told was that her parents always thought that they themselves had been saddled with incredibly boring names, and they wanted their children to stand out - which they certainly did, though not always in a way that was either comfortable or welcome to them.  Our names can sometimes reflect all kinds of things about our parents, and their attitudes and assumptions.

Now we may of course dislike the names we were given at birth intensely, or grow up to reject them - even to the point of changing them by deed poll; just as we may choose consciously to reject the religious tradition in which we were brought up.  But nevertheless we will still have been shaped by those badges of identity given to us in our formative years, if only in a negative way.  Although it is also true that the role that they play is likely to have its limitations.  Those marks of identity are highly significant and formative, but they will only ever be one part of our individual journeys of self-discovery.

It is perhaps appropriate to be reflecting on themes of identity and belonging at the very start of a new year, because it is a useful time for all of us to reflect anew upon who and what we are; on where we have come from; on where we belong; and also to reflect upon who, what and where, we would like to be.

Some years ago I went on a retreat during which I was invited to do a very startling and challenging task - which was, believe it or not, to write my own obituary.  Which sounds rather ghoulish, but which in fact proved to be both fascinating and revealing.  I was asked to approach the task from two rather different angles: firstly to think about how I would like people to remember me - which aspects of my life and my achievements I would want people to associate with my name once I am gone.  But then, more uncomfortably, I was asked to think very honestly about how I felt I was perceived by those whom I found it most difficult to love - those whom I knew actively disliked me.  How would they describe me as a person?  How would they remember me if I were suddenly to be run over by a bus?  It was an exercise that for me was both challenging and chastening task, but I have to say, also monumentally useful in terms of my own growth in self-awareness and self-understanding.  And those basic questions that I was invited to think about are questions that are relevant to all of us.

The good news, of course, is that fundamental to the whole Christian message is the recognition that it really is never too late to change; to develop; to grow; to leave behind the old and transform into something new - it is never too late to change those parts of ourselves of which we feel least proud.  And the start of a brand new year is one of the very best times to be thinking about that.

As we begin our journey into the year 2017, it is likely that there are some events and tasks that lie ahead of us, both joyful and challenging, that we already know about - but an awful lot more that we have no idea at all lie in store for us. The key question is, how do we approach the unknown?  Can we embrace those occasions, whether welcome or unwelcome, good or bad, as opportunities for us to grow in grace -which is what the life of faith invites us to do?

In his Christmas Day broadcast in 1939, King George VI famously quoted some lines from a poem by a little-known writer called Minnie Haskins.  At the time, Britain was at the start of the Second World War, the outcome of which remained far from certain.  The future felt both daunting and bleak. And the words quoted by the King had a profound effect upon all who heard them:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown."
And he replied, "Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than any known way.

Those lines, taken from a poem called 'The Desert', which had been published back in 1908, had been drawn to the King's attention by his wife, Elizabeth, whom most of us now remember as the Queen Mother.  Those same words are now engraved at the entrance to the tomb of George VI at Windsor, and were to be read at the Queen Mother's own funeral, 63 years after that famous broadcast by her husband.

Their author, Minnie Haskins, was British (she is often wrongly assumed to have been American, but she was in fact the daughter of a grocer from Bristol, who studied, and later taught, at the London School of Economics).  Interestingly enough, she had absolutely no idea that the King was going to use her lines in his speech.  It was only the day afterwards when she read a summary of his words, that she recognised the lines of poetry as her own.

But for me, the most interesting part of her poem is not in fact those famous and oft-quoted lines, but rather the bit that comes next, which is far less well-known - where she reflects further on the all-too-recognisably human hunger for certainty - particularly at times when the future feels very uncertain and unclear.  Her poem continues like this:

So I went forth,
And finding the hand of God
Trod gladly into the night.
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.

So heart be still!
What need our human life to know
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife of things,
Both high and low,
God hideth his intention ...

...God knows.  His will
Is best.  The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God.  Our fears
Are premature.  In Him
All time hath full provision.

The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God.  Our fears
Are premature.  In Him
All time hath full provision.

 

If we can learn to entrust our lives, and our hopes, and our fears, and our anxieties to God as we face the future and all that it brings, we really can begin to learn that we need not be afraid.  And if we are no longer afraid, then we can be set free: free to discover our true identities; free to discover the people we truly are; free to be transformed into the people God would have us be; free to discover our true name.  And at the start of a new year, filled with new opportunities and new challenges, that is something for which we truly can be thankful.

The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God.  Our fears
Are premature.  In Him
All time hath full provision.

Happy new year!

 

Amen.

 

 

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