Sermon: What’s in a Name?

12.28.2014      Preaching Text: “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.” (Luke 2:21)

In Luke’s gospel, and in accordance with Mosaic Law, Mary and Joseph’s son is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth and given the name Jesus, a Latin translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, or Joshua, meaning “to rescue or deliver.”

This tradition of naming a child liturgically was to continue into the Christian era. At baptism a child was given a new “Christian name” or “spiritual name.” The idea was that when anybody is initiated into Christ’s church, he or she becomes a new person.

This raises all sorts of red flags for us Protestant mainliners. It sounds dangerously analogous to the dreaded notion of being “born again.” Our minds reel at the thought of such an implied fundamentalist creed. We’re either “born again” or we’re “of the world,” we’ve been taught to think, the latter of which means we’re going “you know where!”

But as with much of life, the thoughts and habits of human beings are all too often reactionary, the result of an aversion to one thing leading ultimately to its polar opposite.

In reading history it’s remarkable to see the unnecessary strife and disorder caused by the way peoples and nations overreact to things. I’m currently reading a book on the 1950’s which discusses, among other things, the considerable effect McCarthyism and anti-communism had on that era.

Conventional wisdom has long argued that the whole matter was nothing more than a crazed hysteria created for political reasons and based on nothing at all of substance.

Documents uncovered since, however, including the top-secret Verona files from the 40’s and 50’s, as well as a number of former Soviet files unsealed in the mid-nineties, reveal clear evidence of communist spies operating at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

But rather than address the situation in a measured fashion, soberly and on a case-by-case basis, the response was one of gross overreaction and over-the-top hysteria, where communists were hiding under every bush!

Within the history of philosophy, to cite an example, Europe, after WWII, awakening from its long fascist nightmare, rightly rejected the radical idea of the “will-to-power,” only to embrace its logical opposite, existentialism.

Where once it was hoped that the force of human willpower would be the key to solving life’s problems, many philosophers now advocated doing away with it altogether! In practice, life directed solely by means of the will had failed spectacularly. The solution, therefore, must involve the will’s total passivity and inaction!

In truth, the question is not whether humans should be active or passive in the face of events, but how we choose to employ our will, whether for sacred or profane purposes. As Augustine once properly stated it, sin is a defect of the will. The question is not whether we use our will, but how we use it.

In the same vein, in the history of theological reflection, because fundamentalism distorted the original biblical meaning of being “born again,” we have chosen to go to the other extreme – by ignoring it altogether! The result is a Christian identity not too different from the surrounding culture.

And if we allow the world to define our perspective on life, we become vulnerable to history’s inevitable mood swings, as collective consciousness lurches from one extreme to another.

The idea of being “born again,” of assuming a new name when becoming Christians, is a beautiful one. And it offers us, as I say, a reprieve from the roller coaster of history, including that which prompts us to reject being “born again!”

At Christmas we welcome the ineffable light that has come into our world. This occurs symbolically, liturgically, at the darkest time of the year. Thus God-consciousness begins as a small, vulnerable baby in a backwater manger. It is a lone, seemingly insignificant candle flickering tenuously amidst the surrounded dark.

Last Sunday, I said that the challenge of Christmas is to receive God’s gift of Jesus. Such a task sounds simple enough, but in reality it’s anything but. Truly to receive the gift of Jesus involves more than an occasionally exultant moment. It requires that we allow this gift to settle into our otherwise crowded hearts. We must make room for it, if you will, in order that it might grow and gain strength, and in the process transform us spiritually.

When I first experienced God in my mid to late 20’s, I came to realize that being a Christian was something that had to be explored, lived, pursued. It was not, sufficiently, a onetime event. It was an ongoing challenge that one aspires to but never fully attains (in this lifetime).

As storm clouds gather ominously in the days following Jesus’ birth, announcing the bitter winter of the soul to come, intimations of the cross are presaged. The lone vulnerable candle must be tended and cared for. The darkness is forever strong and insistent.

Nurturing and carrying forth this flame, however, promises a steady, inner quiet, with an equally steady and quiet perception of the truth, the kind that never changes. Being swept away by social trends and collective hysterias is not the life to which we are called, by name. We are instead keepers of a flame that is eternal, inalterable. Amen.