A sermon preached by Nikolaj Christensen at Evening Prayer on 27 December 2020.
Our reading from Luke this evening ends with a verse that from ancient times, or at least medieval times, and in some churches to this day has been the Gospel for the eighth day of Christmas, the 1st of January – the shortest Gospel of the year. There’s no harm in me reading it again: ‘After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’
That’s all. And now we’ve read it a few days early, giving us a chance to reflect on how the church through the ages has started each new calendar year. The first thing to note is that there is no hint here at our modern obsession with New Year’s resolutions. There’s no exhortation to be better next year. Instead it’s all about Jesus.
The first thing we hear about him: ‘it was time to circumcise the child’. That shows us two things: the Son of the Most High had taken on himself a real human body, in this case a male body; a body of real flesh, not an untouchable illusion of a body; a body formed for nine months in the virgin’s womb. He did that so that by later dying, fully sacrificing himself on the cross, and rising in his glorified body, he could redeem both our souls and our bodies for the resurrection of the body, as we confess in our creeds.
Former archbishop Rowan Williams writes: ‘We are a fantastically materialistic society, but we often seem to have no innate respect for bodies, and to imagine that the body really is only the envelope for an identity created by the mind and the will’. However, ‘Christian faith says that since God has come to encounter us in this world of material bodies, as a material body, and since God continues to use material things and persons to communicate who and what he is, we can’t suppose that life with him will ever simply sidestep our material life. The Bible speaks … about a renewal of creation, “a new heaven and a new earth”’.
That’s certainly something we can’t accomplish ourselves through trying a bit harder next year.
And from Jesus’ circumcision we also learn that he didn’t just take on any old body; he was fully at one with God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham through whom God had promised to bless the whole world. He had the same kind of unblemished Jewish credentials that St Paul talks about for himself in the Letter to the Philippians:
‘If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, … a Hebrew born of Hebrews’.
Jesus would have grown up praying and singing the Psalms like the one we’ve read this evening; a psalm that is just perfect for celebrating the coming of the Messiah. When it calls on ‘Wild beasts and … birds on the wing’ to praise the Lord, I can’t help but think of the window by John Piper that we pass every time we come into church, where the animals proclaim the birth of Christ.
And it is through Christ that, as the psalm here says, God ‘has raised up the horn of his people’. As Christians we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Jewish people for the spiritual richness they have bestowed on the world. It is a truth that has so often been denied in Christian history and in the contemporary world, that sadly it needs to be stated afresh again and again.
The Magnificat that we pray at Evening Prayer is bursting with the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. The opening line echoes the reading we heard from Isaiah: ‘I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God’. When early Christians had to find a way to worship God in Christ, of course they based their worship – our worship – on the worship of the existing Jewish tradition; there was already there a complete pattern for how to ‘exult in … God’.
The second and final thing we hear about the boy in this one verse we’re looking at: ‘he was called Jesus’. On the one hand, this is a name that in Hebrew means ‘the Lord saves’ – immensely significant for us. Of course the angel would tell them to name him ‘the Lord saves’!
On the other hand, ‘Jesus’ or in Hebrew ‘Yehoshua’ was incredibly commonplace among 1st century Jews. If you had three or four boys in your family, likely one of them would be called Jesus. There weren’t that many names to choose from. That again underlines that our Christ is a very Jewish Messiah. Named here in accordance with Jewish custom.
For Christians, baptism has come to take the place that circumcision has in Judaism. For those of us who baptise babies, the parallel is very close. And in both cases there is then that idea that God initiates his covenant, his pact with each of us, before we are able to promise anything in return. No resolution to be good is required of a new-born. That stuff all comes later on. But God’s love and grace for new-borns is available to each of us.
He has not only wiped our slate clean, so that we can have a fresh go at it in January. He has given us a full slate of his gifts. Anything we might achieve on top is just a bonus.
Thanks be to God.