Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
New Year’s is one of those few occasions in life when just about everybody is thinking about the same thing – and that is time. It’s a time for good wishes, for your neighbors and friends, as Charles Dickens penned in A Christmas Carol, “Here’s to us all, God bless us every one!” It’s a time for reflection and hope, as the old Irish saying exclaims, “In the New Year, may your right hand always be stretched out in friendship, but never in want.” And it’s time for joyous reveling. As American poet Phyllis McGinley once chimed, “Stir the eggnog, lift the toddy, Happy New Year, everybody.”
Except for New Years, we seldom think much about time except when we’re running late. And yet, New Years is not simply about time flowing like a river and carrying us all along. New Years is something more. As English essayist, Charles Lamb once wrote, “New Year’s Day is every man’s birthday.” It is about change, new possibilities and dreams.
January 1st, however, hasn’t always been marked as the beginning of the New Year. The first time the new year was celebrated on January 1st was actually in Rome in 153 BC. Unfortunately, not all the numbers and dates were worked out. There were some years with only 10 months, which is why we still have September, October, November and December, with Latin roots for 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, marking the last months of the year. And there were others years which contained 15 months. A century later, in 46 BC when Julius Caesar, the calendar reformer was murdered, the Roman Senate voted to honor and deify him by making January 1st a permanent New Year’s Day. But that was not the last word on the calendar. In the 6th century, the Roman Catholic Church abandoned January 1st as the new year.
At various times and places throughout medieval Europe, the new year was celebrated on a variety of dates from Christmas Day on December 25, to the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 25. And March dates were the most common. Surprising today, March 25th played a significant role in Christian tradition. According to the Jewish lunar calendar and an ancient legend, Jesus was both conceived and crucified on the same date, March 25th. His birth, in turn, was marked nine months later on December 25th. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII, after a 1000 years, introduced the Gregorian calendar which returned New Year’s Day to January 1st.. Unfortunately, a divided Christian Europe would not unilaterally accept the judgment of Rome on such a timely matter. The British, for example, did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire, and their American colonies, still celebrated the new year in March. Eventually, the Europeans accepted the new calendar and January 1st took on its pivotal role which is also commemorated as the Naming Day of Jesus.
In scripture, we read that on the 8th day after his birth, Mary’s son was circumcised. On that day, Jesus also received his name. Among the Jews, circumcision was an important rite. It affirmed the family covenant with God. As for the name Jesus, it was heavy with significance. It was the same name as that of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who led Israel into the land of freedom. The name means literally “The Lord is salvation.” This was the name that the angel Gabriel, at the Annunciation and Jesus’ conception, told Mary to name her child. This was the name that Joseph was told to name the child by an angel who appeared to him in a dream. And so it was not a name chosen by the baby’s parents, or a name they selected to honor a family member, or a popular name they found in a baby’s name registry. Jesus was a name that came from God.
We would miss the significance of the naming of Jesus, however, if we took that name as only a moniker or label, or as a way to distinguish one child from another. The name of Jesus points us to who he was, who he is, and who he will come to be. Perhaps that is why the early church thought it was so important to place his name’s day on the first day of the new calendar year. Our days, our weeks, and our months, should unfold fully aware of his place in our lives. Yes, Jesus is the Savior, the one who delivers and rescues us. Jesus is the one who leads us into the new year, just as Old Testament prophet Joshua did when he led the people of Israel into a new and promised land of freedom, and into a new way of life.
But there is also something intrinsically different about Jesus’ name from all others. You might call it reverence. St. Paul writes to the Church in Philippi, “In the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.” That’s certainly not the name of every Tom, Dick and Harry. In the letter to the Romans, the apostle reiterates the salvific nature of Jesus’ holy name by stating that those who “call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” You could also say that Jesus’ name has an inner power. In John’s gospel, we are taught, that, “If you ask the Father anything in my name he will give it you.” Indeed, much of the work of ministry in the world is done in Jesus’ name. In the New Testament, demons are driven out by the power of the Jesus’ name, baptisms take place, and miracles are performed.
Christians have traditionally prayed using Jesus’ name. Indeed, we are taught that we should begin every good work with prayer appealing to the desires of Jesus’ will, and draw near to him with confidence. In the Western Church, a pattern developed prayer, “If you think on the name Jesus continually and hold it stably, it purges your sin and kindles your heart.” The protestant reformers found power in the name of Jesus. John Calvin believed in reverence for the Holy Name and encouraged Christians to: “glorify His holy name with your whole life.” And Martin Luther encouraged “pure faith and confidence, and a cheerful meditation of and calling upon His holy Name.” Even the beloved Norwegian Table Prayer, “I Jesu navn” begins and ends remembering Jesus’ name. We both give thank and receive in Jesus’ name.
The name of Jesus, however, is not to be viewed as a superstition tool that if you use Jesus’ name correctly, you will get want you want, but if you use it incorrectly, God will refuse to hear your prayers. That is not a respectful, responsible or reverent use of Jesus’ name. To know Jesus, and to know his name, is really about being drawn into a relationship with him.
According to Portuguese Catholic tradition, in 1432, a terrible plague broke out in Lisbon. All who were able to do so, fled from the city, and thus they carried the plague to every corner of the country. Thousands of men, women and children were swept away by the cruel disease. From one person to the next it spread. So many people died from the disease that bodies lay unburied in the streets of the city.
Among those left helping the sick was a monsignor named Andre Dias. He saw that the plague grew worse each day, so he urged the people, both those dying and those not yet afflicted, to repeat the Holy Name of Jesus. He taught them to invoke constantly with their lips and in their hearts this most powerful Name. Monsignor Dias went about as an angel of peace, filling the sick and dying with courage and confidence. The poor sufferers felt within them a new life. Before long, the sick began to improve, those near death rose from their beds, the plague ceased, and the city was delivered from the worst suffering ever to inflict it. The news of the power of Jesus Holy Name spread across the entire country. Grateful for what had happened, the people continue to love and trust the Holy Name, to call on and honor the Name of their Savior.
What happened in Lisbon was not magic or superstition. It was what all prayer is: It is to know Jesus. It is not an attempt to change God’s mind, but rather an opening of yourself to God’s purpose. The people of Lisbon prayed fervently in the name of Jesus, and opened themselves to the divine mercy. Their world became different. Unfortunately today, few people know and understand the simple, incredible and divine power in Jesus’ name. How tragic it is, that Jesus’ good name is not only ignored, but, sadly, so often spoken in the most thoughtless, and even crude manner.
My friends, a new year lies before us. We do not know what it contains. But we can pray fervently in the Holy Name of Jesus, that God will be with us. Who knows what the New Year will bring. There may be someone you love, who will give birth this year, may they know that Jesus is placing his hand of blessing upon their new born child. Maybe you yourself will experience some wonderful joy, some new opportunity, or some unique blessing. May you express your gratitude, with the name of Jesus on your lips. Or perhaps instead, you may face some great trial. You may doubt God’s love for you. May you face that challenge confidently with the name of Jesus on your lips that he is your savior. Or perhaps someone you know will die this new year. May you offer them the assurance of God’s peace with the name of Jesus on your lips and that they may be lead to eternal salvation.
Yes, a new year lies before us. May it be for each of us a year when we pray our Savior’s name, Jesus, with faith and fervor. May it be year when you and I discover anew that this world can be a very different place through the power of Jesus’ holy name. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.