January 1, 2017


The Feast of the Holy Name

            The University of Tennessee’s football season came to an end on Friday evening with a 38-24 victory over the University of Nebraska. In case you don’t me that well, I grew up in Knoxville, going to Tennessee games with my dad. And even though I attended college at Middle Tennessee State University, the tradition of Tennessee football continues on in my family. My dad and sister still go to every home game. They get there early enough, along with 30-40 thousand of their closest friends, to watch the marching band parade to the stadium. We did that when I was young, and my sister, 13-years younger than me, continues the tradition with my dad. Since I cannot be there in person, my dad calls me as the band is marching. I always have to be aware of the kick-off time so I’ll know when to expect that call. And in those 90 seconds, everything else just kind of stops. I even pulled over during a bike ride once to make sure I got to hear all of it. There is just something about Traditions, isn’t there?
            We are finishing out a six week season, starting with Thanksgiving, filled with Tradition. Families that always make *this dish* every Thanksgiving; people who have to watch a particular movie to make it feel like the holiday season; some families have long-established and unwritten rules about who gets to place the star/angel/whatever on the top of the Christmas Tree. In some ways it’s hard to believe that Christmas was a week ago. But yet, it was, because here we are on January 1st, New Year’s Day on secular calendars, the Feast of the Holy Name on religious calendars. January 1st brings with its own set of traditions. We eat certain things, make certain resolutions, maybe that’s the traditional day people start taking down the Christmas decorations. Later this afternoon, my family will enjoy our New Year’s Day tradition: an early dinner spread of appetizers as we enjoy a little late afternoon football. It will be a little different this year since it’ll be the Panthers game and not the Rose Bowl, but still a fun tradition, and one that we stumbled upon by accident.
            The other holy day we observe this morning, The Feast of the Holy Name, is steeped in Tradition that is no accident. In the 17th Chapter of Genesis, God made a covenant with Abraham, that every male child in his family, both servant and free, would be circumcised on his 8th day of life. Later, as it’s recorded in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Nehemiah, God says that every first born male child shall be dedicated to God. This is to serve as a reminder of the cost to the Egyptians for holding God’s people captive for so long and mistreating them. Eight days after the child is born, he is presented by his father (the mother is ritually unclean and cannot enter the worship space) to the religious leader, receives the sign of God’s covenant with Israel (circumcision), and is formally named. Luke remembers this occasion with just a few verses in the overall narrative of Jesus’ birth, but it gives him the opportunity to talk again about the importance of the Temple. Remember, in the story of birth of John the Baptizer, the Temple plays a central role in that story, too.
            So, why is all of this important? Why do we remember the 8th day of the Baby Jesus’ life?
            Mary & Joseph are keeping with the Laws of Moses and presenting this holy child, a first-born male, to God. And they name him Jesus, just as the Messengers of the Almighty told both of them separately to do. This short little scene in Luke’s Gospel serves as a reminder of several important things. For starters, why God chose Mary and Joseph in the first place. Their faithfulness and dedication to God’s laws would certainly be an environment from which faithful Jews would expect to see the Messiah emerge. Matthew’s Gospel records Joseph as a righteous man. In the same vein, it reminds us of Jesus’ Jewish-ness. It reminds us that Jesus was born into a faith Tradition, to two parents who were committed to making sure he was a part of that Tradition. Luke does a masterful job of making Jesus appealing to an incredibly wide audience. But we cannot, nor should we forget the ancient tradition into which Jesus was born and raised and the context in which he taught. Luke does a good job of reminding his readers that Jesus was often found in worship at the synagogue. Take Luke 4:16 for example: When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. A careful reading the context clues in each of the Gospels finds Jesus celebrating other Jewish high holy days with his disciples. One of the roles of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to clarify why it was we have certain traditions and how we should honor God within those traditions.
            There is something important and incredible about Tradition. I say that fully aware that I am 40-year old, white male, who is the senior minister of a mainline Christian denomination. I hold the belief that Tradition is important and incredible, but not infallible, because it has the potential to be life-giving on so many levels. We are a part of a 2,000 year old tradition based on the life and teachings of someone who was an active part of a 4,000-year old tradition. We are part of a Tradition that helps share the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ in both the words we use and the actions we take.
On this first day of the week, on the first day of the year, you have chosen to make yourself a part of that tradition, too. Maybe this is what you always do. Maybe you are turning over a new leaf in a new year. Either way, we are grounding ourselves for the week to come, giving us perspective on where who we are and whose we are. We have chosen, like Mary and Joseph, to remember that in putting God first, in our week and in our life, we are submitting ourselves to something bigger than us. For Mary & Joseph, participating in this ritual tradition was an expression of their deepest awareness of God’s presence in their lives and their commitments, both public and private, to that same God.

Like Mary & Joseph, we are a part of something bigger than ourselves, more ancient than we can imagine, participating with others who recognize the mysteries of life and the power of the Almighty. As we move forward into 2017, remember where God is and what God is doing in all of our Traditions.