Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, 2017.

Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21

A few weeks ago on a Saturday I went as an invited guest to the Haringey Borough Civic Service, which was held in Muswell Hill Synagogue. It was the regular Sabbath worship of the Jewish community, and it was very moving to see the devotion and faith that surrounded the reading of the Torah, the books of the Law inscribed on ornate scrolls.
Apart from the electric light bulbs[1] and the modern dress everything would have been familiar to Jesus and the Apostles. The regular reading of the Law and the Prophets and the prayers in the synagogue is part of the background to the New Testament, an experience that its writers and its first readers would have shared. But it was profoundly moving to experience this, not from the pages of a book, but as a living tradition, a tradition maintained in spite of adversity and persecution down to the present day.
On today’s feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus we can hardly avoid the Jewishness of Jesus. His circumcision, in accordance with the Law, is a sign of God’s covenant, a sign that Jesus belongs to the people chosen by God to receive the promise of salvation that the Law and the Prophets point to. The Law in this case is not only the moral law, how to be a good person, summarised in the ten commandments that apply to everyone. It is also the practices and observances that mark the Jewish people as distinct, that constitute their identity. Circumcision, the dietary laws, the observance of the Sabbath, are all part of that.
Jesus himself has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, not to do away with them. The incarnate God places himself under the Law and identifies himself with his people, for their sake. God come among us is one of us, and so is born in time, in space, in a particular culture and epoch. He is not born all over the place, but in Bethlehem, in the reign of Augustus, born not just human but a Jewish human. God makes himself particular, limits himself to one time and place and people, in order to anchor himself in the world and redeem all times and places and people.
The Law required that male babies were circumcised on the eighth day. So, for the first seven days of his life, Jesus was not under the Law, in a kind of limbo as far as belonging to God’s covenant people was concerned. It’s significant that in that period he was visited by no-one except the shepherds, who, living rough on the hillsides, were outsiders to the community defined by the Law.
This period at the beginning of the life of Jesus mysteriously foreshadows and mirrors its end, for his death on a cross also placed Jesus “outside the law” – the book of Deuteronomy says that anyone who hangs on a tree is under a curse.
St Paul in Galatians says that Jesus was made subject to the Law for the sake of the Jews, and also placed outside the Law for the sake of the Gentiles. The incarnate God identifies himself with all people. He is the Saviour of all. And all are saved through faith, not by complying with any law. This is fundamental to the Gospel. We cannot save ourselves: God has saved us in Jesus on his own initiative, by his own grace freely given, in accordance with his own promise. It doesn’t depend on us.
This circumcision of Jesus is also his naming. He is given the name Jesus because, as the angel said before he was born, “he will save his people from their sins”.  
The name Jesus, or Yeshua, means “The LORD saves”. God is a saviour. It was actually quite a common name, and ordinarily naming a boy “Jesus” expressed the pious hope of Israel that God would save his people.
But the naming of this particular child, the Son of Mary, has a greater meaning, because we know from what comes after that this particular child is, himself, the Saviour. This Jesus is not just a pious hope, but is God come to save his people in person.
He is the saviour who will preach the Kingdom of God. He is the saviour, because he will take away the sins of the world. He is the saviour, because he will share our death in order to raise us with him to new and eternal life. He is the Saviour, because he enters the mess of human history and sin and violence, to bring, not condemnation, but forgiveness and the grace to begin again.
Salvation means reconciliation with God and with one another. It means reconciliation between Gentile and Jew – St Paul says in Ephesians that Jesus has “broken down the dividing wall between them”. How tragic and wrong that Christians through history have failed to recognise that, and so often have treated Jews as strangers or enemies. But it is also tragic that today the Holy Land is divided by walls, built because of fear of terrorism, but walls nevertheless that break up and divide communities. We must pray for the Church in the Holy Land to be a strong and reconciling presence there.
Salvation also means reconciliation across all the divisions of humanity. We are perhaps more conscious of social and political divisions in our own country at the start of this year than we were at the start of the last. There are divisions too between faiths, and between different Christian churches. And there are all the divisions that are out of the public eye among families and friends.
As Christians we are called to be reconcilers. “God has reconciled us to himself”, says St Paul in 2 Corinthians, “and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” This is the work of every Christian. We are to be reconcilers, taking risks and making sacrifices for the sake of uniting a divided humanity, because we have been reconciled through Christ.
2016 was the Year of Mercy. It would not be a bad idea to let 2017 be the year of reconciliation. The year when we live more fully and with deeper gratitude the reconciliation that Christ has won for us. The year when we reach out to others, those who are estranged from us or from one another, building bridges, seeking peace. The year when we work in our communities to build a just and united society, to hold up the banner of hope when so many are looking to the future with fear.
Above all to live as though reconciliation and salvation are the most important things that can possibly happen – because they have been promised by God from ages past and have now come near in Jesus Christ, named today as the saviour of the world.

[1] Switched on before Shabbat, of course

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