From Division to Fullness
Rev. Douglas Olds, First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo (CA)
Festival of the Holy Names, January 1, 2017
Numbers 6.22 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
24The LORD bless you and keep you;
25the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.
Galatians 4.4-7 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God
Inserted into the middle of the Apostle Paul’s most combative letter, to the Galatians, today’s scripture reading presents Paul’s minimalist birth narrative of Jesus. Unlike the birth narratives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, there are no angels, shepherds, wise men, miraculous stars, apparitions or annunciations in the temple. No celebrity mom named Mary. No Joseph or manger or inn with animals. No swaddling clothes, or frankincense, gold, and myrrh. There is no Herod, census of Cyrenius, or slaughter of the innocents. Paul’s account of Jesus’ birth omits all of these colorful particulars of the infancy narratives of Jesus. Whether Paul was aware of them is irrelevant, for his message had always been the salvific meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross and the liberation of the Holy Spirit for the creation of a worldwide church. In Galatians 4, Paul states the earliest creedal statement regarding what Christians call “the incarnation,” God taking on human flesh: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”
As a Jewish child, Jesus is enrolled in the people of the divine promise: Eight days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph had him circumcised. His name was also confirmed then (Lk 2.21). It was to be Jesus, as the angel Gabriel had prophesied before Mary became pregnant. The etymology of the name Yahshua is “YHWH heals.” In the Hebrew culture, the naming of a thing implied power, authority, or control over the thing named by the one naming it. Hebrew culture had a scruple about naming God. Paul, in naming God, Abba, Father is suggesting a most mild form of naming, thus humility in control. God is naming Jesus through the angel. According to Paul, this new age of the people of God in Jesus’ birth and naming was to occur in the fullness of time. So the first aspect of Paul’s creedal affirmation of the Christmas incarnation is God acting in the fullness, τὸ πλήρωμα, of time.
The medieval church celebrated this time of naming and circumcision at the first week after Christmas through the Festival of the Holy Names, which is celebrated around January 1, and which commemorates Christ’s obedience to the law in our behalf, as evidenced by his circumcision (Lk 2:21). The poet John Milton asserted that Jesus “bleeds to give us ease.”[i] Here we see a parallel of circumcision with the blood of the Cross. Christ bleeds to give us ease states a folk piety that surrounds the Feast of the Circumcision, or Festival of Holy Names.
Only one Christian church retains a contemporary ritual of circumcision, the Abyssinian Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, which administers the rite to its children between the third and the eighth day, prior to baptism. The festival of the holy name or circumcision originated in the 6th century in Spain and Gaul; and became instituted at Rome in the 11th century.[ii]
[Galatians] was addressed to uncircumcised Gentile Christians who accepted, but now were reconsidering, the message that Paul has proclaimed about God’s grace in redeeming and justifying Jews and Gentiles through faith in Jesus Christ without the works of the law. They received the “good news” that Gentiles could become [adoptive] heirs of God’s promises and equal members of the people of God by abandoning their idols and trusting God’s redemptive action in Jesus Christ, without observing the [ceremonial] law.[iii]
Turning to Paul’s image of fullness of time, we see it is one of pregnancy, whereupon time had begun counting down to some signal event. I’m convinced that there were people who read the prophet Daniel (9. 25-27) in this context of a prophesied countdown to a new age, to an age of the anointed one.
The angel Gabriel tells the Old Testament’s Daniel (ch. 9) of a 70 times seven sequence, which suggest a Jubilee forgiveness supercycle. As I’ve spoken of before, Ezra chapter 7 tells of a decree in the seventh year of Persian Emperor Artaxerxes’ reign that concerns Jerusalem. It is this 70 times 7 year Jubilee from then that brings us to the age of Daniel’s anointed one. Our Biblical and non-Biblical witnesses[iv] report a messianic fervor amidst both the people and the religious scholars at that time.[v] I believe this is why Jesus applied to himself Daniel’s visionary name, “Son of Man.”
This pregnant time of the run up to the incarnation of an anointed one demonstrates how Israel’s God controlled the history and destiny of God’s people. God controls Israel’s name. God enters into the history of a people’s struggle between faith and faithlessness to fulfill Daniel’s 490 year countdown to the new aeon. The aeon when we were to receive adoption as children by the spirit--the spirit which calls out Abba, Father in our sufferings, ensuring we will take on the experiences of the Garden of Gethsemane and of the Cross, when Jesus called out the “Abba, Father” in his agonies. Juergen Moltmann notes, “We shall never be able to get used to the fact that at the centre of the Christian faith there is this cry of the God-forsaken Christ.”[vi] To know God as Abba, Father is a new way to know God in religious experience. Childlike. To name God as Abba, Father is a new way to name God in human religious experience.
We receive the name of children of God, like the name of Jesus, in whom we pray. Before our adoption, we are divided, according to Karl Barth, subject to the Law of God but striving in our souls for God’s mercy. This also was ancient Israel’s lot. After our adoption, we are unified by the spirit to have the word of God, the name of Jesus, echo in our prayers and in our ears as we go about our lives. In this consciousness, we are unified in Word, thought, and deed.
How then should we treat our period of divided conscience—our period of estrangement from God—and of our children’s as when we were children before we became inspirited? Karl Barth notes there is little in the New Testament that treats the relationship of elders and children. Paul speaks of our period of padeia –training-- when we are under the law, when we are under what the Book of Numbers calls the name of the Israelites, the blessing of the law as our first reading noted. But since we are adopted children of God, we are to introduce our own children not to the aeon of law, but to the good news of the Gospel. Always modeling for them hopefulness--the spirit that things will get better. In the end, the Gospel mercies triumph over the Law’s judgment of woe.
If it often looks like the world is coming to an end, the Gospel of Jesus reaffirms the covenant with Noah that God will not allow the children of humans to go extinct. If death looks imminent, we have the authority to pray, Abba, Father! By doing so, we are abiding in the word and name of Jesus, and we are aligning in unity our conscience with God’s name. We pray “Abba, Father!” in Jesus name, through the Spirit as our alter ego. Think about it: we are praying through the threefold, Trinitarian name-- in Jesus name in the Spirit we are praying the name “Abba, Father.” In our greatest distress, there is no more Trinitarian mode of prayer! At the point where humans lose hope, where they become powerless and despairing, the lonely, assailed and forsaken pray Abba Father in Jesus Name. Forsakenness brings on that Trinitarian human condition! This suggests to me that in our distress and suffering there is no greater closeness to God, and that God shares in that suffering and distress. It takes a faithful constitution, my friends, to live fully and gladly in this interpretation of the human condition.
Brene Brown writes, "Hope is a function of struggle...hope is not an emotion. Hope is a cognitive, behavioral process that we learn when we experience adversity, when we have relationships that are trustworthy, when people have faith in our ability to get out of a jam.”
Life is not a comedy by this interpretation, but a tragedy, and the Gospel is God’s triage--seeking to save that which appears lost. Without the Gospel, humans are in some sense like the dinosaurs in the recent New Yorker cartoon looking at a meteor on collision course with earth with the caption, “Maybe it isn’t going to be so bad.”[vii]
The apostle Paul in Galatians 4 writes, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law. “By this negation of the Law’s judgment,” Miroslav Volf writes, “Through [Christ's] judgment of grace, we will be freed from the inescapable injustice of the suppressions, lies, evasions and half-truths in which we, as bearers of memories, are presently ensnared.” Things will undoubtedly get worse, but there is a Gospel light at the end of the tunnel, even if it is not apparent to the struggle of this life.
If humans were to go extinct, something intrinsic to God would die as well since we are in a unity with God-- to suffer. But I believe also to triumph with God as well. Rev. 21, a regular post-Christmas scripture reading for today, speaks of a new heaven and a new earth where fear of death triumphs no more. Praying Abba Father in Jesus name is where we cement our unity with Christ to bring about a healing gesture or movement by our loving God to bring about that new earth. And which brings about new connections of peace and gladness among us--a new heaven.
This unity of losing obsession and developing a Gospel conscience in suffering is described by a story:
The novelist Leo Tolstoy’s brother told him to sit in a corner until he stopped thinking about a white bear. Much later that day, Tolstoy remained in the corner, his mind fixated on the white bear he needed to stop thinking about. He was finally able to stop thinking about the white bear when his brother gave him permission to think about it.
This experiment has been replicated, and the result is always the same: when people forbid themselves or attempt to rid their mind of something, it boomerangs back to them with alarming consistency and persistency. ...Letting go of whatever dominates your mind (including [fear of judgement]) frees it to think of [spiritual] things such as warm breezes, the beauty of friendship, and the simplicity of enjoying a meal. We lose out on these small joys of life when our big problems take more than their deserved mindshare.[viii]
The psalms describe this modulation of mindfulness as “Though we walk through the valley of death, we shall fear no evil.”
How then, are we to live not by our divided passions but by the fullness of our humanity? Our readings this morning suggest that it is by childlike VIRTUE that we pass our time in mitigating the worse effects of systemic decline and in blessing the light. What is important is that we become part of the story and name and deeds of Jesus. We live fully when we demonstrate his virtues of gratitude, courage, patience, kindness, silence that truly listens, empathy, self-denial, and justice. We can't pretend that we're looking for a child in a manger when we look away from a child in a refugee camp.
We lift up the truth in all things and protect our neighbor from hate speech and prejudice. We teach Jesus’ pattern of virtues to our children and live in prayer, fully moving our deeds and conscience within them. Not by our divided consciousness of trying to live according to a mandate of custom or a fear of ostracism, but in our lives freed by the Word and Names of God.
Happy New Year, my friends. As humans, we continue to enter history with blinders on. The gospel takes us off the leash of our fear. God wins! Love wins! This is the blessing of the Gospel and our confidence to move with it. That is my message today on this Festival of Holy Names. May we institute the intimate names of Abba, Father and Jesus the Christ ever in our spirit, becoming more fully human—more fully living and loving in the Trinity--through our actions and worship that welcome the stranger as we do our Lord. It is our calling, and it is our gift.
[i] Jeffrey, D. L. (1992). In A Dictionary of biblical tradition in English literature. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans
[ii] Cross, F. L., & Livingstone, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). In The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 1137). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
[iii] Rivera, L. R. (2008). Theological Perspective on Galatians 4:4–7. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 1, p. 158). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
[iv] (cf. Luke 3.1-7; Mark 1.3-8; Josephus)
[v] For more detailed Biblical chronology of Daniel’s 70 weeks and its relationship with the decree of Artaxerxes, see my internet article at http://douglasolds.blogspot.com/2014/12/expect-something-new-messianic.html
[vi] Tweet, December 18, 2016.
[viii] http://tinybuddha.com/blog/how-losing-all-hope-can-be-freedom/ accessed 11/27/16. My interpretation of the Tolstoy story is contrary to this author’s, who focuses not on fear like I do, but on an obsession with hope.