Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year, Holy Name, Circumcision

          Happy New Year!  This morning we celebrate new year’s, and the Name of Jesus, and finally the Circumcision of Jesus.

We keep track of time either by sun or by moon.  Every 365 days 6 hours 9 minutes and 9.76 seconds the earth makes a complete revolution around the sun – or from the earth it takes that long from the shortest day in the year to the longest and back. When the sun is midway days and nights are the same length. In 1582 Pope Gregory offered a calendar revision that keeps the spring equinox when days and nights are equal length around March 21 and thus keeps Easter in the spring. Muslims use a calendar based on the moon which is 11 days shorter than the calendar based on the sun. One result is that the fasting month of Ramadan moves through the seasons. In 2005 Ramadan began October 4; this year July 20; by 2015 June 18. The Jewish calendar is also a lunar calendar but keeps in synch with the seasons by adding an extra month 7 times in 19 years.

          The Romans used the extra month system until 45 BC when Julius Caesar reformed the calendar to 12 months with an extra day every 4 years, just 9 minutes, 9.76 seconds off. Over time 9 minutes a year adds up. In 1582 10 days were dropped - October 4, 1582 was followed by October 15, 1582. Protestant countries were slower than Catholic ones to change. In England Wednesday September 2, 1752 was followed by Thursday September 14, 1752.

          Gregory also changed the date of the beginning of the new year. The Jewish year begins with Rosh Hashanah (the head of the year) in the fall; the church year begins with Advent 4 Sundays before Christmas. In England before 1752 the new year began March 25 the feast of the Annunciation, but in Scotland and most of Europe after 1600 the new year began January 1. The Reformation in Scotland was more thorough than it was in England. The Scots abolished all “Catholic” observances like Christmas. But people need a winter time to party and Scots’ celebration of Hogmanay and “first footing” on New Years Day came to America with the Scots-Irish and continue.

          New years offers us a chance to reflect on the year past and to celebrate, repent, and to change attitudes and behavior. Fitness center membership spikes the first two weeks in January. We joke abut new years’ resolutions and our inability to keep them. Our experience is that no matter how worthwhile and important the resolution change is hard. But we can make changes; conversion is a reality. Change requires lots of grace and lots of support. We are children of God by adoption and grace; the Holy Spirit dwells in us; God calls us to help one another to live lives in which God’s grace is evident. So Happy New Year!

          Ous second celebration is the Name of Jesus. The 1979 Prayer Book has January 1 as the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – from the gospel reading. Names are important. Our names both mark us as individuals and show our connections to others.  Hebrew names generally are words with particular meanings. Jesus is a form of Joshua which means “I will save.”  And he has saved us by his death and resurrection.

          Today’s Old Testament reading begins, “The LORD spoke to Moses . .  .” In the English Bible tradition LORD in all capital letters translates the Hebrew Yod He Vav He - J H W H -– called the Tetragrammaton – the 4 letters. It is a form of the verb “to be” as Moses heard God say at the bush that burned and was not consumed, “I am that I am.” God’s name for himself is holy, so holy that it is not spoken by Jews. The old style was to say “Adonai” my Lord. Modern Jews say “Ha Shem” the name.  Classical Hebrew is written in consonants only, with no vowels, and no spaces between words. People learned to read the Bible by hearing it read to them; the written text was simply a reminder. In about the year 800 of our era a system of dots and dashes under the letters was developed to show the proper vowels The vowels for Adonai were placed under the JHWH, and when Christians who did not know the tradition but did know the vowel points read the Hebrew Bible they pronounced JHWH as Jehovah. We don’t know how God pronounced his name, but we do know that God has chosen to reveal his name to the people he has chosen for himself.

            And we know that God chose Jesus to save us. God chose to become a man, fully and completely human, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile all humanity with God. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatian church, “,so that we might receive adoption as children. Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” We bear the name of Jesus’ sisters and brothers. God grant we may be worthy of the name!

          And last, beginning in France in 565 we have records of a celebration of the Circumcision of Jesus on the 8th day after his birth, and for 1400 years we heard sermons about the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ circumcision.

The sermons had two major themes, both of which are important in our spiritual life. The first spiritual meaning of Jesus’ circumcision was Jesus’ obedience to the law of God. Beginning with Abraham God commanded male circumcision as a sign of his covenant with his people. The church very early replaced circumcision with baptism as the sign of the covenant. The issue is obedience, obedience to God’s will. We teach that obedience to the moral law of God is required of all people. Christian people are not required to observe the ceremonial law. We don’t have to abstain from shellfish and barbeque – thanks be to God, but we may not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet; we must honor our parents and those in authority and we must both take reasonable rest ourselves and offer rest to those over whom we have authority. The Prayer Book Catechism pages 847 and 848 summarizes the moral law that we are called to obey. 

The second spiritual meaning of Jesus’ circumcision pays attention to Jesus’ blood shed for us, fully expressed in Jesus’ death on the cross, but beginning with his blood shed by the command of God’s law to his people the Jews at his circumcision.

          So New Year’s Day, the Name of Jesus, the Circumcision – all three have spiritual meaning. May God give us grace to live a new year, celebrating Jesus name, and giving thanks for his obedience and his blood shed for us and our salvation. Amen.

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