When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
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.
New Year’s Day has, potentially, three titles in the church calendar. Two come from the Gospel for the day and the third is a more general celebration. In the Anglican calendar we can call today ‘The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ’ or, ‘The Feast of the Naming of Jesus’. In the Roman Catholic calendar, however, it is called the ‘Feast of Mary the Mother of God’. That last title refers back to the declaration at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD of Mary as Theotokos, a word that means ‘God-bearer’ and hence the title ‘Mother of God’. For some more sensitive Christian souls this sounds an ‘over the top’ title. How can God have a mother, the pre-existent God surely cannot come from human origin ‘born of a woman, born under the law’ as Paul describes it in the letter to the Galatians (Galatians 4.4)? But this title for Mary draws us into that deeper truth that the child whom we have visited in the manger in Bethlehem, the focus and destination for our journey when we were Bethlehem bound, is not just a baby who will become the greatest man, but the incarnate Son of God, God sharing our humanity.
Jesus in his divine nature is God; Mary bore him in her womb; therefore, she is ’Theotokos’, the God-bearer, and we can, consequently and rightly name her as ‘Mother of God’.
But it wasn’t this that I particularly wanted to think about today as the other names we can give to this day are more important in that they have a scriptural resonance associated with this day itself, as opposed to celebrating something which is purely doctrinal in nature.
In the middle of the busyness of Advent at Southwark Cathedral one of the young couples in the congregation gave birth to a baby. I had actually married them earlier this year and we were all delighted when we heard that they were expecting a baby. So the baby was safely born and I then received the message that they would want the ‘Eighth Day’ naming ceremony. The husband is of Nigerian heritage, the wife is English but in accordance with the tradition back in Nigeria, and in many other countries, it was important that the new parents, with the rest of the family, came along to church on the Eighth Day and named the child and gave thanks for his birth and safe delivery. I had officiated at the ceremony on other occasions and so was not surprise but I was delighted.
So we gathered in the Harvard Chapel on the morning of the eighth day – miraculously we found an hour when there wasn’t a carol service going on – and I read this gospel before we named the child. Sebastian Tomilayo was the name chosen by the parents and we gave thanks for his life. There was, of course, an English tradition of giving thanks after the birth of a child which was called ‘The Churching of Women’ in the Book of Common Prayer. But for various reasons, especially an erroneous idea that childbirth made a woman unclean and in need of cleansing before she could be reintegrated into society, it fell out of use. That also meant that this healthy and wonderful ceremony which linked us back to this event in the life of Jesus and back further into Old Testament tradition, of giving thanks for a safe delivery and naming the new child, has become uncommon in contemporary society.
But as we stood in the chapel with little Sebastian Tomilayo in our arms we were able to remember that a safe birth is a little miracle and needs to be acknowledged as such and for the whole family gathered before God it was the acknowledgement of a new beginning, a new family and the blessing that that brings.
As with the story of the naming of John that we thought about before Christmas, the name that Joseph and Mary gave to their child was preordained. Gabriel had told Mary, just as Zechariah had been told, what she was to call the child. ‘You will name him Jesus’ said Gabriel. We’re not told that when the naming ceremony came along there was the kind of questioning that happened on the eighth day with John. But presumably that was because Mary and Joseph were away from their home environment, from Nazareth where they were known, in this place in which they were relative strangers and so no one could say ‘but no one in your family has this name.’
Sebastian Tomilayo’s parents had chosen the name carefully – Tomilayo is a Yoruba name that is translated ‘My joy’ – and the name that the angel gave to Mary was important. The name Jesus shares the same roots as the name Joshua. It was Joshua who did what Moses could not do – he took the children of Israel across the Jordan into the Promised Land. The name, Jesus, Joshua, Jeshua in Hebrew means ‘God saves’. As the angel said to Joseph at the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel of the child to be born to Mary, ‘he will save his people from their sins’. It was all in the name.
For us that holy name is everything. After his death and resurrection, after the day of Pentecost, the apostles are witnessing to Christ in the world and they are healing the sick. Peter is arrested for doing just that and is asked about his authority for acting in this way. Peter responds with characteristic boldness
‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’
This name, given on this day, is the name at which heads must bow, the name written on our hearts. This is the name by which we will be saved, the name above all others names. This is Jesus, saviour who will take us across another Jordan to the land of God’s promise.
whose incarnate Son was given the Name of Saviour:
grant that we may live out our years in the power
of the Name above all other names,
Jesus Christ our Lord.