Naming the New Year

I stayed up last night to usher in the New Year. It's been quite awhile since I was even awake for the festivities…not even the momentous 2000. I'm not much of a party person. But the joyous return of my oldest son to live with us again along with Caleb, my grandson brought with it an occasion to begin the future with fresh hope and expectation from the very first minute.

The celebrations of any new year are an odd mixture of traditions, customs, and rituals depending on the culture within which you were raised. I can remember one year so very long ago, when a bunch of us college students made the trip to New York City. We attended a dinner theatre performance of Hello Dolly and then made our way to Times Square for the bitter cold traditional crowd scene as the famous ball dropped to the screams and shouts of what seemed like a million people. Later, at one of the parents' homes, we sat around and talked about the future and what it might hold.

I can't remember our hopes and dreams from that night, but I'm sure we would all have been more than a bit surprised to know how our lives would all turn out. Yet, every year, Americans honor the turning of the calendar year with anything from wild parties to celebrate yet another year accomplished to quiet reflection on what life is all about and resolutions to make some kind of change.

We have a symbolic representation of the new year. A bearded old man hobbles out as a little baby enters the scene. It is more than appropriate to think of an infant because for most families, the expectation of a newborn engenders new hopes and dreams. Not only for the changes that it brings the family dynamics, but a world of possibilities that this new life potentially could bring the world. I can remember looking at the little face of my firstborn that night he was born wondering how he would impact the people around him. My husband and I struggled to find just the right name for him long before he was born so that he would have an auspicious future and a name that would challenge him. Wyatt means God's little warrior.

Deciding on a name is a significant choice, for naming carries effects that will be felt his or her entire life. Scanning through baby name books helps us uncover meanings behind the sounds of a name, but today most people try to avoid names that evoke humiliation or bad memories, and seek names that recently carry respect, names of people we know, honor, and love.

In Biblical times, it was just the same type of challenge. For the name that was given in those days carried with this child the hopes of the parents, the potential for the future, and the promises of God. The name would declare the child's heritage and character, qualities to live into. For Mary and Joseph, however, their decision on what to name their baby included the command by an angel of God. Of course, as many people do, they could have ignored God's command. Afterall, Yeshua was a common name. But it does mean God saves, and was that not the hope of all humankind?

Naming a child was not the only ritual that occurred within days of birth. Circumcision gave the Jewish child an identity, an incorporation into the covenant community with God. As a remembrance of the exodus for a firstborn child it was required that his life be consecrated to serve God all the days of his life. Exodus 13:2, 11-16 And, so he was taken to the Temple for this awesome occasion. But there one could redeem the firstborn son back for a price of five shekels of silver. Numbers 18:15-16.

The mother underwent a period of purification since scripture declared her ceremonially unclean after the birth of a child. She was not permitted to enter the Temple or touch any holy object. All of these prescribed rituals and obligations, Mary and Joseph accomplished faithfully to fulfill the law. And as they did so, both Simeon and Anna, devoted temple workers, blessed them with words that Mary especially would remember.

The observance of religious requirements and rituals has fallen on hard times. Essential to Judaism is the praise of God in all of life. Jewish law taught that God was to be honored in one's rising up and lying down, in going out and coming in, in how one dressed and what one ate.

The danger, however, was always that adherence to external requirements could mask a disregard for purity of heart and sincerity in one's love of God and neighbor. Jesus would attack the hypocrisy of some of the Pharisees of his day, and early Christians soon moved to distinguish themselves from Jewish practices. Ritual observances had a well-established place in Christian devotion in the Middle Ages, but the Reformation again precipitated a separation of the interior aspects of faith from the believer's ritual expressions of that faith.

The pressures of secularism and modern life have again reduced the significance of ritual observances in the lives of most Christians. Busy schedules, dual-career marriages and after-school activities mean that families eat fewer meals together. Prayer before meals and family Bible study are observed in fewer homes today than just a generation ago. For many, religious rituals are reduced to church attendance at Christmas and Easter and to socially required ceremonies at births, weddings, and funerals.

The marking of both daily and special events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. In the minds of many it is associated either with superstitions and cultic practices of the past or the peculiar excesses of religious fanatics. The result has been that God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life.

Many assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons. Their lives move in a secular realm devoid of the presence of the holy. Daily experiences are reduced and impoverished. They have no meaning beyond themselves, no opening to transcendence. Little room for mystery remains in the everyday as it becomes increasingly subject to secularism and technology.

The challenge to modern Christians, is to find effective rituals for celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary. We need to learn to greet the morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness of food, family and friendship at meals; to recognize mystery in beauty, and to mark rites of passage, like a sixteenth birthday and the freedom and responsibility that come with a driver's license. Rituals are not restrictive, they celebrate the goodness and mystery of life.

WORDS of our rituals can be powerful, especially in the context of celebrations. Commitments are made. Love is given a voice. Promises shape relationships. The words spoken to Joseph and Mary by Simeon and Anna are the heart of the scene but they stand in a powerful context: obedience to the law, celebration of a birth, worship in the Temple, and recognition that God's promises were being fulfilled. This ceremony was not considered an intrusion in their lives, or even a duty to perform, but an expression of their deepest awareness and commitment. Joseph and Mary saw God at work in events they had experienced. They lived within a covenant community, and they sought to fulfill vows they had made as well as to introduce their son into that covenant community.

We, too, live in the midst of a community that has rituals. Our year is marked with tradition, our lives with rites of passage. We are encouraged to look closely at them and see if they continue to have the depth of meaning that is intended. If we uncover that we merely do these things out of habit, or social expectation, then perhaps it is time to challenge ourselves with rediscovering our ways of speaking with God. Perhaps we can find new ways to honor the one who has given us life.

Read other sermons by Pastor Joan