1 January 2023 – The Holy Name
by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.
As you may have noticed from the opening collect, the hymns, and the emphasis in each of this morning’s lessons, today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name. Eight days after his birth, consistent with his family’s Jewish practices, Jesus would have been circumcised and formally given his name. As today’s gospel reminds us, though, Jesus’ name was a foregone conclusion long before that day. He was to be called the name that was “given to him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21). You’ll remember, in the previous chapter of Luke, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he came prepared with a name: “And now,” he said, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
This name, Jesus, traced back to the Hebrew – a form of the name Joshua – means “God is salvation.” From before his conception, everything about Jesus, even his name, pointed us toward God and God’s dream for us.
- his birth – coming into the circumstances into which he was born;
- his life of prayer;
- his teachings
- the example he lived.
From the time Gabriel visited Mary with this most miraculous of invitations, Jesus pointed us toward God with all that he was, even down to his name.
Each of us could come up with examples of how Jesus in his earthly life tried to reveal us God’s salvation. The New Testament is full of examples – in fact, the whole thing is, more or less, Jesus showing us the saving power of God.
In today’s readings, the compilers of our lectionary also offer an example of Jesus pointing us toward God: the Christ Hymn from Philippians. (I will point out that the reference to the second reading printed in your leaflet this morning is mistaken. This text is actually from the second chapter of Philippians, not Romans.) Paul, in this letter to the community at Philippi, incorporates this pre-existing hymn that scholars believe was in use in the early church. It’s a beautiful description of Jesus’ humility, his self-emptying, his obedience, even unto death (Phil 2:7-8).
That’s a pretty good expression of Christian ethics and, if one aspired to emulate it, the spiritual work of a lifetime, to be sure. Especially if we understand the hymn in the way Paul encouraged his readers to consider it in the preceding verses: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit,” Paul offers, “but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).
I do find this Christ hymn to be a beautiful doxology, a hymn of praise to who Jesus was, the example he offered, his embodiment of God’s salvation. As with some things with Paul, though, I also find that it can be troubling. You see, Paul’s writings are what scholars call “occasional letters.” Each one was written in a specific circumstance, in response to particular needs, addressed to a defined group of people, with specific objectives in mind.
Sometimes I wish it were possible to sit down and talk to Paul about his letters and how we might make sense of them in our time. I’m not sure he grabbed his quill and sat down with the intention of writing a definitive theology to be applied to all circumstances throughout all time. If I try to read this Christ hymn in that way, it raises questions. But, if Paul could be here today, with his experience of the risen Christ, inspired by his life among the company of early Christ followers, I’d love to get his help understanding how to make sense of these words for our circumstances.
So…I have some questions for Paul. Here goes:
- The Christ hymn describes Jesus as emptying himself, as taking on the form of a slave. This is a useful posture for us to emulate – even, perhaps, revolutionary counsel, then and now, for those who sit in positions of power and authority. But what would you say to the slave…? Or to people who have been relegated to the margins of power…? Or to those on the receiving end of structural inequities in our world today…? Is the primary spiritual advice to take on the form of a slave, or to empty themselves of their own interest?
- OR, what about circumstances in which you wouldn’t offer the spiritual counsel in this hymn? What about victims of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence? How do we prevent these verses from being mis-used in such circumstances?
- OR, how do we make sure that the call to be “in full accord and of one mind” (2:2), or to “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5), or to empty ourselves (2:7) – how do we make sure that doesn’t suggest that our individuality should be sublimated? How do we balance this aspiration of selflessness alongside Paul’s teaching that each of us has unique gifts to offer the church?
- OR – I’ve got a lot of questions for Paul! – what do we do with the common interpretation of the Christ hymn that the preferable Christian response is to be meek or calm? One scholar commenting on this text asks, for example: “when we face a national crisis…do we run around like Chicken Little screaming, ‘The sky is falling,’ or do we reflect Christ by remaining calm”? [Source, 112]. Is it not possible that one consequence of emptying ourselves is to free up space to burn with a passion for justice? That this is kenosis, too?
And the questions could go on…. But, sadly, Paul’s not here. In his absence, though, we do have each other to help puzzle through how his insights and inspirations for his place and time might be best understood for our place and time.
So, today, on this Feast of the Holy Name, maybe the name of Jesus can remind us that God’s salvation offers the full range of human emotions – passion, anger, confusion, joyful embrace of life…and self-emptying. Maybe God’s salvation is an invitation to stand up for what is right for ourselves and others when the occasion calls for it…and an invitation to humility and obedience.
Maybe our participation in God’s salvation is to have the courage and patience to sit with the questions, to remain in ambiguity. Maybe our participation in God’s salvation is to discern the godly response to our circumstances, given our gifts. To dare to imaginatively sit down with Paul, recognizing that God had something powerful to say through him, and that God has something powerful to say through us, in our time. Knowing that Jesus – God’s salvation – can hold it all.