1 Jan 2012    Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

Num 6.22-27; Gal 4.4-7; Luke 1.15-21

About eight years ago the music critic Norman Lebrecht published his first novel. Not surprisingly, musicians play a central role. Much of the novel is set in war-time London with two boys growing up: one, a child prodigy, a brilliant violinist who has escaped the ghetto in Warsaw and the other, the son of a music impresario. The violinist’s career is about to take off when, as the audience gathers for his debut professional recital, he fails to turn up. Forty years later, Martin has taken over his father’s business as a concert promoter and agent and a chance event suggests that his boyhood friend, the violinist, might still be alive. So begins a long search that uncovers another world. In particular it takes him to the heart of the Jewish community. Tracing what had happened to the violinist’s family becomes important. But who will know? The key moment in the novel, which is its title, is “The Song of Names”. Following a tortuous trail, Martin is sent to a Rabbi. He asks, “Do you know if any of these people died in Auschwitz ?” The Rabbi doesn’t reply but begins to sing. The the song is a seemingly unending list of names; all the names, as best they have been identified, of those who died in the camps, woven into a memorial tapestry of song. The Rabbi could not recall one name here or there out of the thousands but he could remember the whole song. So Martin listens and from time to time, recognises a name...

Names are closely linked with the mysterious business of identity. One of the many terrifying aspects of the Holocaust was the meticulous effort to obliterate all traces of existence. The song of names is an explicit giving back of identity in the act of remembering and an honouring of that identity in the quasi-liturgical act.

Yet there is something seemingly accidental about names. For the most part, names are given to us. We don’t choose them - and with the given name comes something of our identity. Our family name situates us in a particular history, setting us in a relationship with a part of the world, with a family tree - and perhaps with particular employment. Our Christian name has a double resonance: for most of us it is the name our parents chose but it is also the name we were given again in baptism, the name that sealed us as Christ’s soldier and servant. Then, for many of us - and most recently for Daniel - there is the name that shapes our identity as a brother of this community.

Today’s feast draws us into this dynamic of identity as something fundamentally received in and through our name, not simply at the human level but in the call of the God who says, I have called you by name: you are mine! (Isa 43.1b) The child Jesus is incorporated ritually into his community and he receives his name - but this is the ‘name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb’ (Lk 2.21b) His name will reveal his identity but it is not, so to speak, ready-made. Nor is there a simple set of instructions that the child can follow. The loving care of his earthly family is a sign to us of a deeper mystery: it is through the incomparable intimacy of his relationship to the one who is Abba that he will reveal his identity. There is something comical about that old expression ‘a self-made man’ - and not least because of the evident nonsense in it. One of the joys of Christian life is the discovery that growing to maturity, coming to full possession of our identity is best described as a journey of discovery in the crazy company of the Trinity. Crazy because so often the journey reveals that the values we had cherished are the very opposite of those that will make us whole; that so often everything seems to be inside out and back to front - but yet once we have set out, we want to persevere because of the liberating, overwhelming experience of this journey as gift.

Just so, Jesus’ identity is the Father’s gift to him. He is Emmanuel, God with us; he is Jesus, Saviour. To live the gift is his duty and his joy. To turn aside would be to live in untruth and illusion. So it is for us. Each of us, through the sacrament of Baptism, renewed in our profession, is given our unique identity as adopted children in the Son. To live the gift is our duty and our joy. To turn aside is to choose untruth and illusion.

This is true not only for us as individuals but also for us as Community. We all know something of the circumstances that led to a possible Society of Hope becoming the Society of the Resurrection and giving birth to the Community of the Resurrection - and surely something of the Spirit’s inspiration was at work then and has continued ever since to create the gift of our identity. Br Athanasius from St Matthias suggested that one of the distinctive marks of Benedictine monasticism is the commitment to make a place a ‘House of God’, to make it holy by prayer and praise, in joy and sorrow and by taking into our hearts the needs of the world. As we come with wonder and praise to honour the name of Jesus and the disclosure of his identity in which we are enfolded, so may we find new hope in the gift God gives us in calling us to be the Community of the Resurrection. May our thanksgiving for all the dedicated craftsmanship, design and labour that has restored our Church to us spill over in renewed eagerness to make public the fruits of our life together.

Such new energy must itself be gift. It will be found if we are able to intensify our corporate listening; our unity in faith and practice; our attentiveness to the needs of others. Then, in a way no less surprising than the discovery that this particular child is the Saviour of the world, we may find that we are offering hope and peace and light in the midst of a troubled and fearful world.

Lord, you are in the midst of us and we are called by your name: leave us not, O Lord our God. (Jer 14.9)

Peter Allan CR