1 Jan 2017
“And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal. 4:6) In the name …
On the day after Christmas, I read a timely Garfield cartoon in my newspaper. A confused and sad looking cat asks in disbelief, “Christmas is over already?!” Again, this is the day after Christmas. In the second panel, Garfield protests, “It can’t be over! It has to come back!” And then in the third panel he makes the big announcement as to why: “I’m not done being merry yet!!”
I loved that Garfield would say such things on the day after Christmas because for me, for the church, for those of us here, the day after Christmas is only the start of our celebration of Jesus’ birth, a celebration that continues still today. Church keeps Christmas going; it lets people keep being merry.
In that spirit of a continuing Christmas celebration, we gather today on the eighth day after Jesus’ birth when you count Christmas as day one. When I was a seminarian and then a young priest back in Scranton, I used to love today’s Gospel reading. We would have to always be prepared to read the Lesson and Gospel in Polish back in the day, and my Polish never came easy, so when today’s one-verse Gospel came along, what a treat that was. Today’s Gospel, even in one verse, tells us that the Holy Family actively maintained the traditions of their Jewish faith. In the middle of the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish Bible and ours, God gives Moses the circumcision commandment. This act was a sign of belonging to the community of Israel, the chosen people of God. And Mary and Joseph kept that religious commandment.
Somewhere along the line, because it is not mentioned in the circumcision commandment, the naming of the child on this day also became a part of the tradition. And the child was named Jesus. Matthew makes a point of explaining why. He writes in his Gospel: “‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people …’” (1:21) There’s more to this verse, but I’m going to hold off on reading it for a moment or two. The name Jesus is based on the Hebrew word for rescue, deliver orsave. In an even more ancient tradition, the name Jesus was Joshua. Joshua was Moses’ successor and he saved the people of Israel by fighting his way into the Promised Land and laying the territorial foundation for their nation by killing and expelling the people who already lived there. You know all this controversy we are hearing right now about UN resolutions, Palestinian territories and the Two-State-Solution. All of that dates back to Joshua and his wars.
This Joshua was the most famous “Jesus” before Jesus. Luke tells us about a bunch of confusion at the naming of John the Baptist, and you can read it for yourself in Luke 1. This theme may have continued in Luke and there may well have been at least as much confusion at the naming of Jesus. When the name was chosen, everyone who heard it would have thought automatically of Joshua and his conquest, his war-making. This connection would have fit in well with the tradition, and the Holy Family right in the act of naming Jesus is keeping with tradition. But now back to Matthew and the verse I didn’t quite finish. Matthew wrote that Jesus “will save his people,” but then he adds an all-important appendix: “Will save his people from their sins.” Jesus comes to us not as a military saviour, but as a moral Saviour. He doesn’t come to establish kingdoms, but community. This was God taking the given and practiced tradition and turning it on its head, as is the wont of God.
And what a great message this is for us gathered here on New Year’s Day, the other eighth day after Christmas. We don’t have to be what others expect us to be, says Christmas. We can be who we are called to be. God doesn’t see only what we were or even only what we are. God can see what we can be. New Year’s is about opportunities, and opportunities that we help bring about ourselves. That’s the reason behind New Year’s resolutions. We resolve to make improvements in our lives. We can change from what’s expected. This is a change born of optimism, that we have a new canvas in front of us, that we can resolve to be different in our just beginning New Year, and this is a change that should find support in the practice of our faith. God is not only about keeping tradition, keeping the past. God reveals in-all-that-is-Christmas that tradition is alive and changing. The Holy Family was most definitely Jewish. Jesus was most definitely Jewish. And yet Jesus became something different. He became who He was supposed to be.
In today’s Lesson, Paul makes the distinction between a faith born of only following old rules and a faith that springs eternal from a love of God. He’s obviously not in love with the faith of rules. And he is definitely awed by a faith in which our souls reach out to God as “Abba, Father.” In the Gospels Abba is used but once. In the depths of despair, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before the cross, Jesus prays to God as “Abba, Father.” (Mk 14:36) He begs that the test of the cross may pass Him by, but Thy will, Abba, be done. This is the epitome of relationship with God. Abba was such an intimate expression of Jesus that it belonged exclusively to Him. On only two occasions is this rule broken in the entire New Testament, and today’s Lesson is one of them. When we move from just following the rules, to embracing God, then we, like Jesus, become intimate enough to call God Abba. And everything changes.
Christmas makes this abundantly clear. Everything changes at Christmas, even God. Today we celebrate Jesus’ name and His ministry. Jesus is our Saviour, an unexpected one, but our Saviour nonetheless. So no Garfield, Christmas isn’t over already. It’s just begun and there’s plenty of time to be merry yet, and there’s plenty of time to become who we’re supposed to be, and part of that is discovering God as Abba. A blessed New Year to you and yours in the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen. +
Fr. Randy Calvo