And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Eighth Day of Theophany, Feast of the Naming of Our Lord Jesus Christ), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
What’s In A Name?
Everyone is familiar with Christmas in the Armenian Church, the Feast of Theophany on January 6 which celebrates the birth and baptism of Jesus Christ. What may be less acknowledged is that Theophany begins on January 6 and lasts a total of eight days. What is then perhaps eclipsed by our grandiose celebration on January 6, is that the last day of Theophany climaxes with the Feast of the Naming of the Lord «Անուանակոչութիւն» on January 13.
In the Gospel of Luke (2:21) we read,
And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
What is the significance of naming? Why at the end of eight days? And what does circumcision have to do with anything? It turns out that naming a child, circumcision, and baptism are all connected.
The Practice of Naming
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. (Luke 1:31)
Naming a son or daughter is exciting! Whether a name is chosen from a book, to carry on the legacy of a close relative or ancestor, or simply because of what a name means, do we ever consider the meaning behind the practice of naming? In the book of Genesis, God gave man and woman dominion over creation which included the role of naming.
God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (2:19)
Naming gives meaning, identity, purpose, value, as well as a sense of belonging to the one who has done the naming. This practice goes beyond just naming our children. Even naming our pets becomes a deliberate exercise in choosing the most fitting way to identify a newly acquired puppy. Children often name toys such as dolls or stuffed animals. Again, the practice of naming is deeply profound in that the person naming someone or something is the one who places value on that person, animal, or object. In fact, we often are told not to name something if it is going to be temporary, such as a litter of dogs that will be given to other owners, because in a mystical way naming something immediately attaches the one naming and the one being named.
Circumcision, Baptism, and the People of God
If we continue reading the book of Genesis (17:9-14), we discover that the “people of God” are identified as such through circumcision. Any male who received this seal entered into covenant with God and belonged to him. Performed on the eighth day after a child’s birth, circumcision served as an irreversible sign of promise, a branding which made someone the adopted property of God. We read from the Old Testament:
And I will dwell among the people of Israel, and will be their God. (Exodus 29:45)
For Christians, following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the practice of circumcision as the entrance into a covenant relationship with God ceased, being replaced by baptism as the entrance point into God’s family, the Church – the New Israel.
For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:15-16)
And so it is through baptism that we are adopted as children of God, sealed with the Holy Spirit, and all together make up the Church. The fourth century Church Father and theologian, St. Cyril of Alexandria explains the transition from circumcision to baptism, which is considered a spiritual circumcision:
We affirm that the spiritual circumcision takes place chiefly in holy baptism, when Christ makes us partakers of the Holy Spirit too…After Jesus’ circumcision, the rite was abolished by the introduction of baptism, of which circumcision was a type…Formerly a male who was circumcised was included among the people of God by virtue of that seal; nowadays, a person who is baptized and has formed in himself [or herself] Christ the seal, becomes a member of God’s adopted family.
Today, there still exists an ancient Church tradition to name a child at baptism which identifies that child as a disciple of Christ. The name chosen would be one of biblical origin, a saint of the Church, or someone else who exemplifies and models faith in God. This is what it means to have a “Christian name” or a “baptismal name.” Traditionally, like circumcision, baptism is done on the eighth day following a child’s birth to mark his or her entrance into life in Christ, and also, like circumcision, it is an irreversible seal that marks the baptized as an adopted member of the “people of God.” St. Paul writes,
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God. (Colossians 2:11-12)
The Most Excellent Calling
So what does this mean to us today? On the eighth day, the Lord was given the name Jesus, meaning “Savior,” and through baptism, our Savior has named us as his own. The priest prays over each person being baptized:
Fill your servant with your heavenly gifts and give (him/her) the joy of being named a Christian, the most excellent calling.
When we are named and baptized, we are offered to Jesus – to belong to him, to be adopted into his Church through which we are saved, healed, and forgiven. This is the meaning of the Feast of the Naming of the Lord, the eighth and last day of Theophany. When we celebrate the baptism of Christ, we celebrate our own. Through baptism, we have been adopted and belong to him. In Christ we are given a new identity, new being – we are a new creation.
How is this new identity and being lived out? What makes us different than others who are not baptized and named to belong to God? When we are isolated, alone, and afraid we turn to Jesus for comfort and strength rather than counterfeit fixes. When things look bleak in the world, we still experience peace because we know who has overcome the world (John 16:33). When we experience suffering, we identify with the suffering of Christ and allow it to draw us closer to our Healer. In times of prosperity and poverty, we pray because we always, in all circumstances depend on God for his love, and as “new creatures,” we are compelled to commune with our Creator. When we feel marginalized and unsure of where we fit, we know to what family we belong, we know to Whom we belong, we know for Whom we are born, and we know by Whom we are named.
But we fall and often don’t live up to the vows made at our baptism. St. Cyril of Alexandria explains the spiritual sense of circumcision as cutting away sin and purifying our hearts, living a holy life unto the Lord:
Circumcision is the symbol of the faithful when they are established in grace, as they cut away and mortify the tumultuous rising of carnal pleasures and passions by the sharp surgery of faith and by ascetic labors. They do this not by cutting the body but by purifying the heart. They do this by being circumcised in the spirit and not in the letter.
Christians are not meant to live in isolation, but to hold each other up in faith, to keep each other accountable to fulfill our baptismal vows. After all, we are adopted into the same family through baptism, all of us named “Christian.” An infant may not be conscious of his or her adoption into the family of God, but the pledge made at one’s baptism is made by the Church, the community who brings the child to the font and believes on behalf of the child and promises to raise him or her in the Faith in accordance to what is prayed and promised in the baptism service.
Are we living up to the name we have been given at baptism – “Christian?” Do we know what it really means to be an adopted child of God? Do we understand and weigh the cost of this most excellent calling, the demand to be a member of God’s family? Do we as baptized believers and members of the Body of Christ, as a collective community, lovingly help each other cut away what doesn’t belong in the life of another Christian, performing the sharp surgery of faith? Are we afraid to undergo this kind of surgery, or are we desperate enough to admit we require it or else we are lost and propelling toward spiritual death?
May Jesus our Savior keep us on the path of salvation as we, together as the Church, live our one baptism in Christ, singing the words of the hymn for the eighth day of Theophany,
The Savior appeared and brought the world back to life from the deception of the enemy, granting us adoption through baptism.