A sermon for New Year’s Eve – Feast of the Holy Name
Trinity Church of Morrisania Bronx, New York December 31, 2014
Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
In Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, three times it says that Mary pondered or treasured these things: when the angel showed up and she was perplexed, when the shepherds arrived and told her that the angel had said that this baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, is the Messiah, the Lord, and later, when the boy Jesus was found in the temple, teaching, and they went back home to Nazareth.
These were strange events for a young mother; they wouldn’t fit into anything that she had been prepared for. She pondered them, she turned them over in her mind. These terms, “Savior”, “Messiah,” “Great,” “called the Son of the Most High,” what could they mean? It was hard enough to have just a baby. All these other things, they might mean anything or nothing. Most of the time when people used that word ‘Messiah’ it meant, the king, the military leader, nothing like anyone she knew. Extraordinary things—so she pondered. There is no reason to think that Mary ever figured out the meaning of all these things surrounding her child’s birth. It was not that these things did not happen or that she was not faithful, but even having these predictions and descriptions, and angels and prophets did not make the future clear. It did not even make the present clear.
God’s love and God’s presence are real, and now; but what will happen and how it will be explained? That will take some pondering. We reach tonight the end of a year, and we reach out to the beginning of a new one. One hundred and fifty-two years ago, the year 1862 was ending and 1863 was about to begin. This country was in the midst of a bloody and bitter war. At issue was whether one person could own another as a slave, and resistance was bitter and violent, because much of the economy was based on that very premise. As a part of that war, President Lincoln had issued a proclamation called the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that the slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union were freed. It did not free all the slaves, in fact it only freed the slaves in the areas where President Lincoln’s government was not in control. Yet this Proclamation carried a much greater weight of hope for the future for many people. So on New Year’s Eve, 1862, many gathered to watch and hope and pray, for a future of freedom for all of God’s people.
At the end of the year we hope, and we pray and, like Mary, we ponder. Some may have hoped that on January 1, 1863, that all the problems of slavery would be over, it would be gone and everyone would be equal and happy. Or others might have thought that the end of that war would bring those ends into being. But, as we know, more than a century and a half later, these changes were much more complicated than that. The simple changes of laws and of the legal status of persons, only made some difference. Changing the realities of human hearts, human circumstances and human history takes much more than one night or one document or even one war. It takes courage, and persistence and patience and resilience. And even then people may seem intractable and change almost imperceptible. And Mary pondered, what does this angel mean? And she knew she was blessed: “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She did not know all that was to come, but she knew the love of God.
We reach the end of this eventful year. And in our country and in our city we see the anxiety and fear and anger of many people. Sometimes those who are violent don’t even know what they are angry about—they also don’t recognize their own fear. We ponder. We ponder our own fears and all those things that affect the behavior of others, over which we have no control. And we pray for our country and our city.
We reach the end of this eventful year in this parish. We ponder what has happened among us and where God will lead us. In just the two months since I have been here, this parish has suffered the loss of Fr. Allen Newman, Keith Warren, and Jean Barthley, beloved leaders, brothers and sisters. We ponder these things and we do not know what they will mean. But as I ponder, I know that God is present here. I know that this is a place where the Gospel is lived and people are respected and welcomed. I know this because I have been welcomed and respected in very tangible ways, that have nothing to do with any office that I hold or power I might have. I see young Christians, growing in Christ, learning to become Christian adults and leaders in the faith.
We do not know what the future holds any more than Mary did. We do not know the forms and models of ministry that the next 10 or 20 years will hold for Trinity Church—as a scholar of history and a long-time priest I assure you that the models of the last 50 or 60 years were much different than what the church did in earlier times and the future will shape the church according to the faith and hope of our community. With the blessed Mother, we ponder, we treasure God’s love and we smile at the witness of those rough shepherds that came to tell those travelers lodging in the stable that their baby was the Messiah and savior of the world.
Mary pondered all the things that she had heard, and didn’t know what to do with them all. But she did remember, the name. The Angel had told her the name for her baby, and she knew what to do with that. According to the traditions of her people that baby was circumcised and given his name: Jesus.
The Holy Name of Jesus is our blessing and guide. In our Old Testament lesson, the people take on God’s name and become his by receiving the blessing of that name:
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.
“Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.”