Today is an odd day in our liturgical calendar. It is New Year’s Day, and most Americans are slowly waking up, arousing themselves from a late night welcoming in the New Year. They might be settling in to watch the Rose Parade, or making final preparations for the final games of the NFL regular season that is about to get underway, rooting for their team to make it into the playoffs.
In our liturgical calendar, January 1 is known as the Most Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, or the commemoration of the circumcision. Although we don’t usually have a Eucharist on this day, it is traditionally an important feast, commemorating the gospel story we just read, Jesus’ circumcision on the 8th day after his birth. In spite of that, and in spite of the fact that today is the 8th day of Christmas, our minds are not really focused on the continuing celebration of Christ’s birth, we’re thinking about a lot of other things and to recall this story from Christ’s infancy seems little more than a distraction.
Today ushers in a new year and many of us are glad to see the end of 2016. In fact, there’s a hashtag on twitter #worstyearever that has chronicled the various calamities and tragedies we experienced in 2016. We’ve seen the passing of a number of cultural icons—in popular music: Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael. Just this last week, the deaths of both Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds. The terrorist attacks of 2016 which were so shocking as they occurred but have been forgotten as new attacks and new horrors grab our attention. And we forget that for all of the suffering and shock of attacks like Brussels and Orlando, Kabul, Bagdad, Mogadishu, even Istanbul have suffered such attacks on a regular basis.
For those of us who are struggling to make sense of political events here in the USA or in Great Britain, worry about the future of the planet, our nation, and civic community, 2016 was more than a shock—it has upended our sense of who we are as a nation and a people. The old story of progress, that we are moving toward greater inclusion, diversity, openness and tolerance, has given way to a new story. We may be only in the first chapter of that story and we’re not sure how it will turn out. Importantly, we’re also not sure where we fit into this new story. Some of us, many perhaps, wonder whether this new story is one in which we will have a part to play, whether this new story will write us out of the narrative.
While we are happy to say good riddance to 2016 and to the hashtag #Worstyearever, we are full of apprehension about the future.
It may be helpful for us to think again about the importance of our Christian faith in this context, to think again about the God in whom we profess our faith and whom we believe we see most clearly in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. All this may give us direction as we negotiate the uncertainties of the coming years.
It’s natural to be fearful, to lose hope in the present context—whether we are thinking of our individual situations, or the world as a whole. It’s easy to imagine a bleak future, that our lives will not get better, and that the lives of our children or grandchildren will not see the economic prosperity, peace, or security that we have experienced. Indeed, we see signs of such change all around us.
But it’s important to remember that as Christians, we put our hope and faith, not in our own futures, the futures of our descendants, or even our nation. We put our hope and faith in God, a God who rules history in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
As Christians, we put our faith and hope in a God who intervened in history by becoming incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, a God who entered history in weakness and vulnerability, a God who by entering history, changed history.
We have experienced the power of that change in our own lives, in our baptisms, and in the ongoing transformation of our natures in the newness of life brought about by relationship with Jesus Christ. We know that newness of life but we also know the fragility and tentativeness of that change.
We experience in our own bodies and in our own lives the tension between what St. Paul calls the “already” and the “not yet.” We know salvation, but we also know sin. We experience redemption and forgiveness, we struggle with our ongoing sin and brokenness.
As it is in our own lives, so too with the world, with history itself. Jesus was born into a world of suffering, evil, and oppression. He suffered the full brutality of that evil and oppression in his crucifixion. But the life he lived, the death he suffered, were vindicated by his resurrection on the third day, and in that act, we experience the fullness of God’s power over death, the grave, and evil.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are key to helping us as we journey through these uncertain and possibly dangerous times. To bear Christ’s name in these days, as we all do by virtue of our baptisms, to bear his name in these days, is to claim allegiance to the one who died for us, died for the world, died because he loved the world. To bear his name is to share in his suffering but also to share in his love. To bear his name is to bear witness to the God who loves the world. To bear his name is to bear witness to the God of history, the God who rules over history. To bear his name is to deny the power of evil and oppression, to challenge it wherever it appears.
To bear his name, to bear the name of Christ, is to put our faith in him and in his love.
We may very well be in a moment of great world-historical significance. We may be in a moment where the church, Christians, are being called to witness and to faithfulness in ways and to an extent few of us have ever witnessed. If that is the case, and it may be that we won’t know it for some time to come, we will need to draw on all of our resources of faith and prayer, and the deep bonds that tie us together as the body of Christ.
We don’t know. We don’t know what the new year holds. Our world, our lives are full of uncertainty. But there are things we do know, things of which we can be certain, on which we can rely. We know that God is here with us, in Jesus Christ, in Word and Sacrament, in the fellowship as we gather. We know that God is the God of history, that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is at work in the world, creating, making things new, bringing justice and peace. We can be certain that in the end, God will reign.
Thanks be to God.