Reflections for The Naming of Jesus
& the Second Sunday of Christmas
1 January 2017
Readings: Isaiah 45:15-23; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21.
It is courageous liturgical thinking that on the Second Sunday of Christmas with the Feast for the Naming of Jesus, the First Testament reading (from Isaiah) declares: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.”
Think about it for a moment: there is an absolute contradiction between the notion of the God who withholds the divine self from human observation and the God who chooses to be revealed in the incarnation; in a bodily existence so palpable and particular that the divine is given a name.
We are all familiar enough with the difficulties of the so-called ‘proofs’ for God and the frustration we experience when we seek to apply the tools of science to the question. We realise the tools and the language are utterly unequal to the task. But the difficulties are even closer to home, they apply quite intimately to us as well: for instance, can any of us give an account of who we are; can we account for our own consciousness? Do we understand what Being or a Self is?
Natural and behavioural sciences struggle to explain either Being or Self. One medical researcher has expressed the problem in these terms: “Creating algorithms, intelligent machines, or identifying correlates, anatomical, neurophysiological, molecular or atomic and subatomic, may elucidate mechanisms of consciousness, the latter being of value to the sciences, pure and applied, but it does not answer the question of who I am and what is my relation to a ‘being’ higher in the hierarchical organisation of cognitive systems, what we may call God.” (Michael M. Nikoletseas, Deus Absconditus – The Hidden God (2014) p.12)
The prophet says, “You are a God who hides himself”. There is some interpretative scope about what that means: might God hide or even turn away? Are we thinking of a God who is indifferent, or gracious in a way that we cannot comprehend? Can we bear to imagine what the reality of the experience of God might be like? There is a whole trail of allusions and references through both testaments where the glory of God is necessarily veiled or hidden.
That changes with the birth of Christ. The whole story of creation and divine purpose is focussed in this child and in his name: in Hebrew, Jesus means ‘God saves’. Now the unknowable and hidden God is revealed in this living person who perfectly expresses the intention and nature of God. That is an orthodox way of expressing it.
Of course we have questions – untidy and awkward questions about this Jesus and these questions turn on the same questions we have begun with. For instance, what can we say of Jesus’ knowledge of God; of himself as Trinity as well as human; how did his self-emptying of divinity work and the divine and human coexist in the one person? There is no way we can answer these questions but it is important that we are not afraid to raise them because by such questions the enormity of the Incarnation comes home to us and with that also the question of what it means to be human and, on top of that, the question of our own humanity and the sort of persons we are all in the process of becoming.
But on this day, these questions lie ahead of us. At this stage in the story the mystery of the incarnation holds us: here, in this flesh, is the Christ and with his naming is the great message ‘God saves’. The universe is not a hostile space, but formed and shaped with love and purpose. This vulnerable child is the perfect image of that creative and redeeming love. A great creative project is underway.
The rest of the New Testament is an attempt to comprehend and respond to this project. Each of the gospellers tells the story as best they can while in the rest of the New Testament, most powerfully in Paul’s letters to the churches, where the most original thinker of the early church, is quite clear about what this project in Christ means for us. We are to be like Christ.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited.
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave …”
‘To have the mind of Christ’ – think what that means! We who follow Jesus are to be formed to think like him. I am speaking of a process, the work of our lives and our lifetime … something that is unique to each one of us; something infinitely varied and distinctive; but something that is shaped and formed by the intersection of our longing and the grace of God. Formed by ‘the mind of Christ’ we are collaborators with the great project of God.