The ancient Romans had, in their pantheon of the gods, a god of doorways. His name was Janus. He had two faces, one looking backward and one facing forward, because he was the god of endings and beginnings. His name, of course, gives us the word January and also the word “janitor”, the custodian of doorways.
And so on the threshold of another year, as many of our friends are only now waking up from last night’s celebrations, we are holy janitors, gathered here to mark the transition of one year to the next and to greet this new year with prayer, song, and fellowship in God’s name.
It is not just coincidence that the ancient church in its wisdom turned January 1st into the celebration of the Naming of Jesus known as The Feast of the Holy Name. The presentation of Jesus for naming and circumcision by Mary and Joseph was his initiation into the Covenant people of God.
While it was the beginning of his identity as a child of God, it also connected him to the many preceding generations that had known God’s faithfulness. If, as Luke portrays it, this ceremony also served the purpose of naming the baby, it provided the first hint of Jesus’ purpose. It was the announcement that, in this little baby, God was beginning a new chapter in the story of his unending quest to reconcile his people to himself and to one another.
Names were very important in the Bible. They were never given casually. Remember Isaac whose name literally meant “laughter” because God gave a son to Sarah and Abraham in their old age? Think of the names that were changed to mark new roles in God’s saving plan. Abram became Abraham, father of many, when God made his covenant with him. Jacob, the supplanter, became Israel, one who strives with God, after wrestling with God at the river Jabbok. Saul became Paul after his conversion.
In Jesus’ time sons were customarily named after their fathers as a way of honoring their lineage. However, Mary and Joseph knew that their child was from God and should bear the name given to Mary by the angel. Although Jesus was a popular name in Israel, this “Yeshua” (Savior) would be different. Begotten by God and born to a courageous virgin and her accepting husband, this Jesus promised a new beginning for humankind. As a sign of a new beginning, that God was crossing a threshold that had not been crossed before, Jesus’ birth happened in a stable in Bethlehem, not a palace in Jerusalem. It was announced to shepherds, not kings or sages. An old way was ending as the Almighty took on human flesh and became one with us.
With the passage of years, I have come to love the tradition of reflecting on the outgoing year and making resolutions for the year ahead. Although it is easy to pooh-pooh the practice of making resolutions because we so often fail to keep the ones we make, I think this discipline is in keeping with the second chance God offered all creation in the birth of Jesus. The word “resolve” that is at the heart of the word “resolution” is derived from the Latin “resolvere”, meaning to unloose or release.
Perhaps that is why so many of our resolutions are about breaking bad habits. We are, in effect, letting them go. Jesus, our savior, came to us in human form to release us from bondage to sin and self. Jesus was, and is, God’s resolution for our world. Although one with God, he took on our flesh, becoming subject to the suffering and pain we humans know all too well. In addition, Jesus lived up to his name. He didn’t strive as we so often do, for personal satisfaction and achievement, but rather showed us the power of suffering love to overcome the divisions that too often separate us into warring camps.
On this Feast of the Holy Name we remember that our world has called God by many other names: power, money, success, possessions, alcohol, sex, drugs. Many people don’t know God’s name at all. Our calling as those who bear the name of Christ is to help people see that God can still transform their lives. And I believe that that work begins close to home—first of all with ourselves. On this first day of the year, we have the opportunity to begin again, to take seriously the name each one of us has been given—precious child of God—and to act on that name.
In my years of counseling and coaching I have come to realize that we struggle with the concept of transformation because, at heart, we struggle to believe the great, good news that God loves each of us passionately and unconditionally, that we are precious, unrepeatable miracles, even with all our so called warts and blemishes. The world certainly does its worst to convince us that we are unworthy and unlovable, and so we need to keep coming back, every single day, to the truth of who we are, to the name by which God knows and calls us.
So perhaps the first resolution we need to make is about deepening our relationship with God. To that end I am mindful of two principles of Twelve Step programs such as AA and Al-Anon that have greatly impacted my life. The first one is surrender, the turning over of my life and will to God each day. I am achingly aware of the darkness that envelops our world at present. I’m sure you are too. In an entirely unexpected way it has been an odd sort of blessing because it has brought me to my knees, to the end of my very limited resources. Any illusions I might have of wisdom or power have been shattered. I know that I am utterly dependent on God for strength and guidance, and the joy that only intimacy with God can provide. The second principle is that of daily, conscious contact with God which creates intimacy and provides the strength I need. My prayer for you is that you will each find a way to connect or continue connecting on a daily basis so you can hear God tenderly calling your name, and can gather strength for whatever you are called to do.
If making any kind of resolution feels impossible I offer my favorite words from St. Francis de Sales, “Don’t despair over your shortcomings. Start over each day. You make spiritual progress by continually beginning again and again.” God understands our frailty and all the challenges we face on this earthly plane; after all he came to experience them first hand. He understands our need to begin again and again and he understand when we stumble. He came in the flesh, not in power, but in humility, to release us from all that binds and keeps us from knowing our best selves.
I hope this comes as good news to us as we confront a tragically divided world in which power, riches, and hatred seem to have run amuck. In this new year we are given another opportunity to witness to God’s way of being human. Even when our best efforts feel futile in the face of greed, fear and hatred, the Spirit longs to use us to show that God is still at work bringing life out of death.
Let us then approach this new year with thanksgiving and hope. God has acted in our lives through Jesus, our Savior, reconciling us to himself. He has resolved to bless us, and, through us, the world. Empowered by Jesus, we are sent to “re-solve” broken relationships, and threats to peace and well-being throughout our world. We can do so knowing that our Lord Jesus, God’s resolution, will be with us until the end of time. Trusting in him, let us begin again to build a world that reflects God’s awesome vision of righteousness and love.
In Jesus’ name.