Homily preached by Fr Daniel Trott
on Wednesday 1st January 2020 (Naming and Circumcision)
Numbers 6.22–end; Psalm 8; Galatians 4.4–7; Luke 2.15–21
This last week we’ve seen some shocking anti-Semitism in the USA and the UK: the house of a rabbi in New York state attacked by a man wielding a knife, and shops and phone boxes in Hampstead painted with anti-Jewish graffiti. Anti-Semitism seems to be the scourge that never goes away.
So it’s a good time to remember that Jesus was Jewish. And what could be more Jewish than his circumcision on the eighth day according to the Law of Moses, signifying his inclusion in the covenant God made with Abraham?
At his circumcision he was also given a name: Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ Yēšūăʿ), a shortened form of the name Yehoshua (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ Yǝhōšuăʿ), which we know as Joshua, and which is traditionally thought to mean ‘Yahweh saves’. This name, too, is thoroughly Jewish: shared with one of the great heroes of Jewish history, Joshua who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses, and including the very name of God within it – Yahweh or Yǝhō.
So what about the significance of Jesus’s circumcision and his name? Traditionally Christians have understood Jesus’s circumcision to be significant in two ways. First, it is thought of as the first shedding of Christ’s blood, foreshadowing the crucifixion. Second, and more importantly, it’s seen as Christ fulfilling the Law of Moses – he came to complete the Law by fulfilling it perfectly, not to abolish it by transgressing it at every turn. So Jesus begins his life as a good Jewish boy, working within the form of faith his people practised – though he and his followers would later stretch that form dramatically.
What of his name? As our Old Testament reading showed, there was a strong tradition in Judaism of the power of God’s name. In the part of the book of Numbers we heard, the priest blesses the people by pronouncing God’s name over them – the name itself is significant. By Jesus’s day this name was treated with such respect that it wasn’t said out loud any more. Instead of saying ‘Yahweh’ a reader would say ‘Adonai’, meaning ‘my Lord’ – which then got translated into Greek as Κύριος, then into Latin as Dominus, and then into English as ‘the Lord’, with ‘Lord’ always printed in small capitals.
This sense of the power of God’s name was extended in early Christianity to the power of Jesus’s name. In Acts Peter is reported as healing someone by saying to him ‘[…] in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk’ (Acts 3.6). Later on, explaining what happened, Peter says, ‘[…] by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know […]’ (Acts 3.16). In Paul’s letter to the Philippians we are told:
[…] God […] highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth […] (Phil. 2.9–10)
Here God’s own name has been given to Jesus, so that the respect due to God is now also due to Jesus.
So the naming and circumcision of Jesus are tied up in Jewish thought and Jewish practice. Jesus isn’t some generic ‘Christ’ who just happened to appear in Palestine – he’s the Jewish Messiah who was born into a Jewish family, circumcised on the eighth day, and given a very Jewish name. We must never forget that – God didn’t bypass the Jews when he sent Jesus. They weren’t a failed experiment, God failing to make people holy through the Law, and finally having to do it through the cross instead. No, salvation came through the Jews – the Jews were the means by which God chose to bring his salvation to everyone else. And the Jews now haven’t been ‘unchosen’ – they are continuing to be faithful to God as they understand him, and we should stand with them when they suffer for it.
Perhaps there’s also a more general point to be made here. Just as God chose to work through Jewish faith and practice in order to expand and develop that faith and practice, enlarging the chosen people from within, so God comes to us where we are, to the raw material of our lives, in order to expand and develop us. We don’t have to become something different before God will have anything to do with us – he works with what’s there. But if we let him work with us, if we let his Spirit dwell in us and drive us, if we let him slowly recreate us in the image of his Son, who knows what might happen?