Happy feast of the Holy Name and Circumcision of Christ!
(What, did you expect to see “happy new year”? This is a liturgy blog, not a social calendar!)
For many people, today’s commemoration might seem a bit strange. Why are celebrating the “holy name” of Jesus? Is this day like those over-emotive worship songs that repeat endlessly about how precious is it to say the name “Jeezus” over and over again for five minutes? Is this something more “catholicky”, where we silently meditate on the sacred name of Jesus in a mood of affected piety?
First of all, it’s probably helpful to observe that this feast day might better be termed the Naming of Jesus. The Gospel lesson at today’s Communion service is Luke 2:15-21, in which Jesus is circumcised and given the name Jesus. This takes place on the eighth day, according to the Law of Moses, which (in case you haven’t noticed yet) is literally today. On the 8th day of Christmas, Jesus got circumcised and named.
Second of all, it should be further noted that until 1979, the Anglican tradition called this day the Circumcision of Christ – making that rite the primary feature of the day, and his name/naming secondary. Unlike the 1979 Prayer Book, though, our Collect still acknowledges the old emphasis alongside the new:
Almighty God, your blessed Son fulfilled the covenant of circumcision for our sake, and was given the Name that is above every name: Give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, and to worship him with pure hearts according to the New Covenant; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This double focus, as you can see, is expressed well in our Collect. To honor and bear the name of Jesus, and to join with Christ in the New Covenant because he has fulfilled the Old, are both concepts close to the heart of the Christian faith. But it’s also worth looking back at what used to be…. this is the original Prayer Book Collect for today:
Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Notice, free to be more specific, how this Collect draws us to covenant faithfulness, or obedience. To worship God “with pure hearts” in the new Collect is an accurate summary, but when you take the time to pray about “being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts”, you get a better picture of what such “pure hearts” actually look like.
All this besides, Jesus’ keeping of the Law is what proves his innocence, his sinlessness, and thus what sets the rest of the Gospel in motion. If he wasn’t bound to the Law, his obedience to it would not have the significance that it had.
Along those lines, if you deign to pray the Great Litany today, perhaps this is a good opportunity to re-write one phrase back to its original form. Near the beginning when it says “by your holy nativity and submission to the Law” feel free to pray what this petition originally said: “by your holy nativity and circumcision“. This may not be the most popular part of the Gospel and Nativity story, but it’s one of the many moments of key importance, hence its place among the great feasts of the church year.