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The Holy Name




Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21; Psalm 8 When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son... New Year’s Day, today, is of course the beginning of a New Year and an important secular milestone for nearly everyone, marked by fireworks and partying from Sydney to New York to Budapest. According to tradition, it was Julius Caesar who decreed that the first day of January should also be the first day of each New Year since January honours the Roman God Janus whose two faces look to both the past and the future. Julius Caesar is long gone, but the season remains a time of retrospection and reminiscence as well as New Year’s resolutions and prayers for the future. Yet, the day in another sense simply denotes a somewhat arbitrary moment in astronomical timekeeping corresponding more or less to the winter solstice. Surely nothing special about it for the Man in the Moon. Other cultures throughout history, and many still today, have calculated New Year’s Day in their own way and at a completely different point in the cycle of sun and moon. Chinese New Year’s for instance is a vastly different affair from our Western celebration. So is the Jewish New Year for that matter. Here in Hungary, as you probably know, New Year’s Eve is often referred to as Szilveszter, since December thirty-first is the festival day of the otherwise obscure but saintly Saint Sylvester, a pope of the late classical period. How he got December thirty-first as his festival day is not entirely clear. Also not known is what he makes, from his celestial perch, of all the revelry and partying nowadays carried on in his name down here on earth. But if he is anything like his successor Pope Francis, the former nightclub bouncer, he might not mind all that much. The Church, somewhat surprisingly, as it seems to me, has never quite known what to do with New Year’s Day. It has never become much of a liturgical festival day in its own right, although it perhaps should be. For many years, centuries probably, the Church celebrated the First of January as the Festival Day of the Circumcision of our Lord; and there is of course a certain logic to it. Like all boys born of pious Jewish parents at the time, and even today, our Lord would have been circumcised eight days after his birth, and this is in fact recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Theologians and saints like to point out that this was the first time that the blood of our Lord was shed, alas however it was not to be the last. Many late medieval and Renaissance depictions of the Baby Jesus actually show him holding a Cross in his hand, as you will see in today’s Order of Service, as a reminder of this fact. Still, sensitivities today are such as to make circumcision an unpopular or infelicitous sermon topic, especially perhaps among preachers; and the Church has gone on to seek out alternate liturgical themes or titles for the day. Given the unfortunate rise of anti-Semitism in recent years however, especially in our part of the world, one cannot help but think that a teaching moment has thus perhaps been inadvertently lost. More recently, many Christian churches, including the Anglican Communion, have commemorated the Holy Name of Jesus on January first, since it was at his circumcision that our Lord was given the name Jesus which roughly translates to saviour. For Christians, almost needless to say, the name is as sacred as a name can be and certainly merits our devotion. For people of many

cultures, a name in some sense actually embodies the very essence or character of the thing or person named. And we certainly could not imagine our Saviour with a name other than that bestowed by the Angel, Jesus. To complicate liturgical matters further, our Roman Catholic friends and neighbours, now keep New Year’s Day as the festival day of Saint Mary, the Mother of God; yet another worthy theme, to be sure, although it is hard to see the connection between Mary and New Year’s Day or for that matter the eighth day after Jesus’ birth. Besides, to be fair, Mary gets any number of other liturgical festival days throughout the calendar year in both the Catholic and Anglican traditions. So, take your liturgical pick today. Celebrate, as you wish, the Circumcision of our Lord; the Holy Name of Jesus; or Mary, the Mother of God. For that matter, why not reflect on all three...? There is more than enough there to think about and contemplate. And Scripture will surely support all three themes. Still, left to my own devices, or if the Church had had the poor judgment to put me in charge of the liturgical calendar and year, I think I would have simply left things at New Year’s Day and had done with it. Arbitrary or not, the day helps most of us, along with Julius Caesar, focus on time: What we have done with it; and how little of it we have left no matter our age or stage in life. This can be a very salubrious spiritual exercise, it seems to me, any time of the year. For in some sense, time is all there is to this mortal life of ours; even though no one has a clue what time is. It is in contemplating and studying time in fact that physicists, philosophers, and ordinary people come together in knowledge and ignorance, mostly ignorance. Where did time come from and what will become of time itself eons from now are as much hot topics today as they were at the, well, time of our Lord’s birth. Most of us, along with the BBC, CNN, and Magyar televízió, will have spent time in the closing days of 2022 reviewing the year past; the horrors of war next-door, the hardships of inflation and pandemic, and the looming threat of climate catastrophe. We may also find ourselves shaking our heads at own mistakes, stupidity, and sins committed in the months just past. Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, we will probably also acknowledge our manifold blessings and achievements over the past year, the good which by God’s grace we have brought into being and fostered; and the fact that in Christ’s Incarnation there is always hope for humankind. And so, in Christ, we all hope and pray fervently that 2023 will be a better year than the one just past; that war and conflict will cease; and that human societies near and far will at long last come to see and respect the dignity of every person and of this earthly environment we share. Each day is sacred beyond telling. New Year’s Day is simply there to remind us of this too often overlooked reality. As Paul tells us this morning, in Christ, “the fullness of time” has at long last come to be. The Son of God has been born; we have been redeemed; and nothing, nothing, will ever be the same. This is the meaning of New Year’s Day. But for Christians it is also the meaning of each new day. It is the meaning of time. It is the meaning of life. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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