By Elaine Ramshaw
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Holy Name of Jesus Sunday, Year A
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January 1, 2023
There are two natural themes for preaching on this Sunday that go hand in hand: the gift of time and the gift of naming. The meaning and lived experience of time is on people’s minds at the turning of the calendar year, while the readings for the Eighth Day of Christmas recall Jesus’ naming on the occasion of his circumcision and pick up on the idea of the divine name in other ways.
To understand how the reading from Numbers fits in here, it’s necessary to know that the word “LORD” in little caps is a translation of the Hebrew “Adonai,” which is itself a stand-in for the too-holy-to-speak name of God, the name God revealed to Moses out of the burning bush, the name that is some form of “I am who I am,” mysterious and unpin-down-able Being. So when we hear “The LORD bless you and keep you,” we can think “may the Great I Am bless you….” This is why God says that the person who pronounces this blessing is “putting my name on the Israelites.” God has given the Israelites a name to call God, and that indicates a close relationship where humans get to call on God by name, and God responds with blessing.
The reading from Galatians says something similar for Christian prayer. Because we have been adopted as children, the baptismal Spirit enables us to call God by the name Jesus used, “Abba.” This is a way of saying that we are brought into the kind of relationship with God that Jesus has. This is why we pray to God “in Jesus’ name.” Through sharing Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved child, we get to come to God with the trust and confidence of a daughter or son.
This is all gift. Just as none of us comes up with our own name in infancy but receives an identity from parents and others, just as Jesus himself received his name from his parents and from their angelic messages, so the core of our self is not made by our efforts but received as sheer gift.
Though time is not a focus of the day’s readings, our experience of time is highlighted by New Year’s Day. How much are we aware of time as gift? We are bored or anxious when time stretches out, and surprised when it flies, but we do not often remember that time itself is God’s gift of life. God created space and time together, and in Christ God has joined us within the limits of space and time to make them holy.
The heart of stewardship is stewardship of our selves, our identity, our lives, our time. What leads to generosity and sharing is the awareness that none of what we have is purely self-made. Our self, our life, our time is all gift. What does it mean to live this new year in the name of Jesus? It means to live in the awareness that all is gift, received from others and ultimately from God, and not ours to hoard. Jesus’ life was a gift shared with those he met, especially with those who were in need or were shut out of society. He shared time with them, and they by sharing their time at the same table returned and increased his joy. Your sermon can invite people to live in Jesus’ name in this way, aware of the gift of the new year, looking for ways to share that gift with those in need.
You might want to begin the new year with a baptismal blessing, either at the beginning of the service (baptismal remembrance is an alternative to confession/absolution) or during communion. At the font (or a lovely bowl, if the font is not conveniently nearby), one person can bless another by saying, “Name, you are named as God’s beloved child to be a blessing to the world.” Ask the person being blessed to speak the name they want used so the blesser doesn’t have to remember or guess. The pastor or assisting minister could do the blessing, or each person could bless the person next in line, or a child old enough to remember the words could do it. It’s rare to find a spoken, ritual liturgical role that a child can play, and the blessing might actually sink in deeper for adults if it comes from a child.
Talk with the children about their names and where those names come from. Who gave you your name? Does a baby ever choose its own name? Why not? Jesus didn’t choose his own name, either; his parents gave him the name. In the Gospels it says that an angel told them to name the baby Jesus before he was even born. Your name says “this is who you are”—and who you are starts as a gift from your parents, but before that it’s a gift from God. Even if angels didn’t tell your parents what name to pick for you! Our names remind us that we don’t make ourselves, we don’t build ourselves like a tower of blocks; we receive ourselves like a present wrapped in the special paper of our name. Everything we are is a gift. And it’s a gift of love! When you love an animal, do you call it “Cat” or “Dog”? No, you give it a special name. Your name is a gift of love, too. When your name was spoken at your baptism, God was saying, “You, (say the children’s names), are my beloved child.”
When the teens are meeting, there could be discussion about the different ways we experience time: as too long or too short, as frustrating or fulfilling, as opportunity or demand. Do they feel over-scheduled? What does that do to how they experience time? What do they feel when they see a clock or the time on their phone at different times of day? Do they ever have times when they can quiet down and feel that being alive Now is a gift? If so, what makes that possible? Being in nature, playing with a pet, listening to music, meditating? When does giving time to others or to a cause feel like another demand, and when does it feel like a way to expand time?
Invite them to create a prayer about time. Everyone could come up with a statement of thanks, lament or request about their experience of time. “Thank you for the time we had last summer at the lake.” “I wish I had had more time with my relative/pet who died.” “Give me time this year to get outside, or play video games, or learn to bake/ski/dance.” The repeated response could be “All our time is a gift.”
* Elaine Ramshaw is an author, spiritual director and seminary instructor who teaches pastoral care online from her home in Connecticut.
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