A Rose by Any Other Name?

Image: Rose by Alan Jones

This year the Sunday after Christmas falls on New Year’s Day – a day dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus. When the two major public holidays of the year – Christmas and New Year’s Day coincide with Sunday religious observance, I thought it best to scale back to a single service today. Call me a realist if you like. But having only one spoken service on New Year’s Day gives a necessary break for our wonderful church musicians.

In the media we are being treated to endless reflections on the year-gone-by, but today I want to review a more focused timeframe with you – that of the week falling between Christmas and New Year’s Days.

The Calendar for the week following Christmas Day is – unfortunately – crammed full of commemorations. On the 26th the Calendar commemorated St Stephen, first Christian martyr. I feel so sorry for churches like our near neighbor, Smoky Steve’s whose patron saint is St Stephen because I guess the day after the Christmas highs is not the best time to hold your patronal festival. Churches dedicated to St John, Apostle, and Evangelist fare little better with December 27th being his commemoration.

On December 28 the Calendar commemorated Holy Innocents, as the massacre of Bethlehem’s male infants born around the time of the birth of Jesus. I’m in mind of Marcus Borg’s throwaway line that the Bible is true and some of it actually happened. The corollary of this is that many events in the Bible are not historical but symbolic or metaphorical. Josephus, the most reliable Jewish historian of the 1st-century makes no mention of this infanticide despite amply chronicling Herod’s extensive abuses of power.

The massacre of Bethlehem’s boys aged one and under is part of Matthew’s dramatic account of the context in which the birth of Jesus took place – a context of political violence and instability. Herod the Great, alerted by the Magi’s search for the birth of Isaiah’s prophesied king is determined to snuff out all possible rivals. Matthew tells us that Joseph being warned in a dream, takes Mary and Jesus, and immediately flees to Egypt for safety.

The Incarnation celebrates the Creator’s entry within the tent of creation through the precariousness of a human birth. To celebrate this great festival with any integrity requires us to struggle with the deep human pain of the refugee crisis even though no satisfactory solution seems in sight.

In my Christmas Eve Sermon, I drew on the Matthew account with a particular reference to the Holy Family’s flight on the refugee road to safety in Egypt because I wanted to counteract our treatment of Jesus’ birth as a delightful, if imaginary, fairy story. The birth narrative details matter much less than the significance to which they point. To highlight the refugee element in Matthew’s story concerning the Holy Family’s flight functions as a challenge to our humanity in the face of an unprecedented world-wide migration and refugee crises. The Incarnation celebrates the Creator’s entry within the tent of creation – made visible in the precariousness of a human birth. To celebrate this great festival with any integrity requires us to struggle with the deep human pain of the refugee crisis even though no satisfactory solution seems in sight – well no satisfactory solution, enough of us, can agree upon.

Is this not the function of religious story – to alert us to what remains uncomfortably yet profoundly true to our human experience?

Matthew and Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth function on several levels but chiefly, they function as good drama. As good drama, they construct details to reveal a profoundly truthful picture of the world. The construction of the massacre of the innocents is the way Matthew connects the birth of Jesus with Moses’ birth recorded in Exodus 2. Like Moses, Jesus also survives a threat to his infant life. For Matthew this connection is significant. For Moses is Matthew’s template for the Messiah Jesus. Jesus, like Moses, is the savior of his people.

On Thursday, December 29, the Calendar takes a particular English turn with the commemoration of St Thomas-a-Beckett, Henry II’s former chancellor and enabler turned archbishop and chief critic. In the year 1170, acting on the king’s mafia-like, unspoken yet strongly hinted at suggestion, three knights took it upon themselves to murder the archbishop on the steps of the high altar in Canterbury Cathedral – thus silencing the king’s most vociferous critic. It’s a story many will be familiar with having been immortalized by T.S Elliot in his play Murder in the Cathedral.

We arrive at the first Sunday following Christmas Day, which in 2023 is also New Year’s Day. In other years, on the first Sunday after Christmas, the Calendar gives a gospel proclamation from the Prologue of John’s Gospel – in the beginning was the Word etc. This year, New Year’s Day is actually the eighth day after Jesus’ birth. On the eighth day the Calendar commemorates the Holy Name of Jesus.

I do not recall ever having preached on the Holy Name in 38 years of ministry because Holy Name usually falls on a weekday and so for Episcopalians, like most weekday commemorations, it goes unnoticed except by a very few. The commemoration of the Holy Name records Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day following his birth as according to Jewish custom.

Circumcision presented a major conflict between the early Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus. The issue was finally settled at the Council of Jerusalem where Paul persuaded the other Apostles to lift the circumcision requirement on gentile male converts. As a result, the Church was ambivalent about commemorating so Jewish a practice in the life of Jesus. Instead it chose to focus on the naming element of the circumcision ritual – as a commemoration of the eighth day after his birth.

Matthew does not record Jesus’ circumcision – being the most Jewish of the gospels I guess he assumed it as a matter of course and so felt no need to mention it. Recording the event of the circumcision falls to the ethnically ambiguous Luke. Luke’s ethnicity remains contested. Was he a gentile or more likely, was he a highly Hellenized Jew?  Either way, Luke writes for a gentile readership for whom it seems important enough to Luke to remind them of Jesus’ Jewish cultural identity.

What’s in a name? Shakespeare has Juliette in the famous balcony scene exclaim A rose by any other name would smell as sweet – to argue that names do not affect the way things really are. Juliet compares Romeo to a rose saying that if he were not named Romeo he would still be handsome and be Juliet’s love. This states that if he were not Romeo, then he would not be a Montague and she would be able to marry him without hindrance.

I wonder though about Juliet’s desire to believe that a name does not denote anything essential in the real world. Most cultures treat names as things of the essence of personhood. Either a name is the mystical expression of our personhood, or being given such and such a name, dictates and subsequently molds us into the persons we become.

Modernity follows Juliet’s reasoning. Remember Shakespeare is the greatest English wordsmith of the early modern period. The words he gives Juliet prefigure modernity’s view that names do not reflect anything real or of the essence about a person.

Many of us feel free to change our names at will – an action unthinkable in traditional societies. Yet, why would we want to change our name – unless we felt it a poor fit with who we feel ourselves to be? Most of us would find it hard to seriously imagine being called by any other given name. For me, I am a Mark. Mark is part of my identity, and I could not seriously contemplate being called by any other name. Robert is my other given name- what we call my middle name. But Robert is a family name. It’s not personal to me. It was the name in various combinations given to all the males in my paternal family line. I say was, because being the only childless son – the practice dies out with me. Yet, I know of people who have reversed the order of their given names because having been given a family name as their first name, they adopt their middle name to express their essential individuality.

Yet, why would we want to change our name – unless we felt it a poor fit with who we feel ourselves to be?

Luke records that after eight days had passed, Jesus was circumcised and given the name mandated by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. That’s Luke code for the name God gave to Jesus. And here we come to the main point about names being and expression of unique personhood. It’s important for us to remember that Jesus is the Greek iteration of the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means YHWH saves. Yeshua – savior is the clearest statement we have as to who Jesus was born to be. Just to ram the point home, the early Christians tagged onto Yeshua or Jesus another name, Christos in the Greek or Mashiac in Hebrew – meaning Messiah.

Yeshua is not simply the one who was prophesied would save his people – YHWH saves. For Christians Yeshua is also the Christ – the one who came to save not only his Jewish people, but all humankind.

It’s hard to disagree with Shakespeare but in this instance I think we must. Names matter! A rose by any other name may well smell just as sweet – but would it still be a rose?

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