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Naming and Circumcision of Christ

23 December 2022

Numbers 6.22-end; Psalm 8; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21


THIS is the day when Jesus received his name, hence the reading from Numbers 6, with its closing words, “They shall put my name on the Israelites.” But first it gives us the priestly, or Aaronic, blessing. Aaron’s descendants, like priests in the Church today, pronounce God’s blessing; but the blessing itself comes from God, not from any mortal.

Aaron’s blessing is not confined to history or the written page. It has a liturgical life, too. It is echoed in worship described in scripture (the opening of Psalm 67, for example), and it makes a fitting conclusion to many of our acts of worship.

If we look more closely at the blessing, we see two words referring to God as if he had a human form (Genesis 1.27). One is “face”, and the other is “countenance”. In Hebrew, though, the same word is used twice, insistently: “the Lord’s face . . . the Lord’s face”. So we must not be confused into thinking in terms of two different aspects of the Most High. Perhaps translators thought that repeating the word would sound boring. In fact, it adds emphasis: God’s face really is a source of blessing to us.

Christmas can help us to see how this is so. One of the most powerful images of Christmas — which not even Father Christmas, reindeer, or robins can eclipse — is that of the Mother and Child. It is as easy for non-Christians to read and apply to themselves as it is for Christians. Not all of us have children, but every one of us was once a baby, and we gazed up at someone who mothered us.

When we look down at our baby in the crib, or cot, or manger, whether it is sleeping or bawling, we can be swamped by a tidal wave of love. The more fragile and dependent it is, the more the baby calls forth from us the qualities that make us “little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8). The image on the Christmas card of Mary with the infant Jesus reminds us of this unique bond of regard. It needs no reward of smile or reaction (though we welcome these when they come). It is just love for something that we have helped to make, and which needs us. It is our privilege to nurture that frail child of dust.

In the Gospel, the shepherds came with news from the angel to tell Jesus’s parents. They witnessed the forming of the bond between Mary and Joseph — one biological parent and one foster-parent — and their baby son. Then they returned to “real life”. We imagine them gladdened, changed by their experience.

Mary treasured what the shepherds told her. She already knew her son’s identity, thanks to the words of the angel Gabriel at the annunciation. When he was circumcised on the eighth day, by naming him Jesus she and Joseph turned their intention of co-operating with God into action. Three months before, Zechariah and Elizabeth had done the same.

The bond between parents and child changes as time unfolds. But it begins with total dependency on one side, and, on the other, our best go at cherishing. This brings us back to Numbers 6. In the three petitions, with their paired verbs, only the word “face” is repeated. God makes his face to shine upon us; God lifts up his face toward us.

Jesus confounds simple categories of divine and human. His naming invites us to stand in the place of God and see how it feels to bear such love for a child, a family, a nation, and a world in need. Think back to those Christmas images of the infant Jesus and his mother. In many paintings, light seems to radiate from the baby, brightening the mother’s face. That is the incarnation in pictorial form.

The cherishing regard of the parent transmits love to the infant; yet the infant — of his nature, not his will — casts light on the parent. In time, that regard becomes reciprocal. Yes, the face of God enlightens us; but it also warms and wakens us, so that, when we feel safe in its steady, kind regard, we begin to respond by smiling, reaching out our arms. Love is born from the lifting up of that face, and brightened by its lifelong watching over us. Categories of parent and child dissolve in God’s ocean of limitless love.

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