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On a hot August morning in the summer of love, at a little church, St Peter’s, on the corner of 244th Street and 138th Avenue in Queens, Fr. Rix Pierce Butler turned to my parents and godparents and said to them, “Name this Child.” Most families in Queens didn’t have family names that they were especially keen to pass on and preserve, so my parents gave me names that they liked: Sean Edward.
Just yesterday, I turned to a young couple who I married here at Saint Mark’s more than eight years ago, and who now live in Oklahoma but who returned here for the baptism of their second child - a little girl who was born eleven weeks ago – and I did what an older version of the Prayer Book used to instruct: the rubrics of the old book say, “Then shall the Minister take the Child into his arms, and shall say to the Godfathers and Godmothers, ‘Name this Child.’”
“Margaret Rose,” they answered me.
The newer version of the Prayer Book that we use here has dropped this instruction, along with the pretense that somehow a child’s actual parents are not responsible for seeing that he or she is brought up in the Christian faith. There are lots of complicated, and no doubt good reasons that this detail has been dropped from modern liturgies, not the least of which is that we no longer expect that the person being baptized is an infant. But since many children are still baptized in church, it has seemed a shame to me to fail to ask for the child to be named at that point.
Margaret Rose’s names – her given, or Christian names, as they are sometimes called – are borrowed from her maternal grandmothers. I often explain to parents at baptism that they don’t need to include the family name since God will not be looking us up in the phone book. He knows us each by name, and in some cases, I expect, even by nickname. He has no need to keep track of us in alphabetical order by last name.
And so the instruction has been given here many times: Name this Child.
Name this Child: Henry.
Name this Child: Claire.
Name this Child: Nico.
Name this Child: Maximillian.
Name this Child: Nathan.
Name this Child: Cornelius.
Name this Child: Jude
Just to call to mind the names that have been given in this church in the last few months.
Do you remember what happened when the angel Gabriel visited an old priest named Zechariah and told him that his wife would have a child and that this child should be named John? The old man finds it heard to believe that his wife will give birth in her old age, and so he is made mute for the duration of the pregnancy.
And on the eighth day after the child was born, it came time to circumcise him, according to Jewish custom, and to give him his name on that day. After the baby’s foreskin was cut, his father should have recited a prayer of thanksgiving, but he could not. He was silent, too, as a drop of wine was put into the child’s mouth. Now it was time to recite the prayer that would give the boy his name. And all those gathered expected that he would be named for his father, Zechariah. But Elizabeth, his mother, tells them, “ He is to be called John.”
“But none of your relatives has this name,” they argue with her. And they turn to Zechariah to ask his opinion. And Zechariah, who must have been feeling a little sorry for himself, asks for a writing tablet, and he writes, “His name is John,”
And St, Luke tells us that “immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” He had named his child, just as God had instructed.
Now, Zechariah was a priest of the Temple, a descendent of Aaron, to whom had been entrusted the blessing that God wished to see pronounced on his people:
“The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
“So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” God had said to Moses.
Zechariah was not a high priest. It did not fall to him to pronounce the name of God ten times in the inner precincts of the Temple on Yom Kippur. But he knew something of the power of a name. And when he was asked to name his child, it was not a casual thing to recall the angel Gabriel standing before him, with his wings still unfurled, and tell him the name by which his son would be known to God.
Name this Child: His name is John.
Just so, a few months later, still camping out in Bethlehem, the little family of Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, and Joseph, her fiancé, and their baby would have made arrangements for the circumcision of their child. Joseph’s tongue had not been tied, his lips were not sealed, but how uneasy might it have been for him to say the words of blessing and thanksgiving that a father says for his son on this day, knowing full well that he was not the father of this child? Did he argue with Mary about it the night before?
The shepherds wouldn’t have cared, but they had returned to their flocks. Were questions asked before the ceremony began? Or did a tacit agreement to leave the matter of parentage unmentioned hold sway? Who was it that recited the kiddush over the wine after Joseph’s prayer of thanksgiving? And who said this prayer or something like it:
“Creator of the universe, may it be your will to regard and accept this act of circumcision as if I had brought this baby before your glorious throne. And in your abundant mercy, through your holy angels, give a pure heart to Yeshua, to Jesus, the son of… who? Of Joseph? Of Mary? ... who was just now circumcised in honor of your great Name. May his heart be wide open to comprehend your holy Law, that he may learn and teach, keep and fulfill your laws. Amen.”
Did the rabbi, or the mohel, or the cantor, or whoever it was that stumbled through those prayers with Mary and Joseph know what it was to name that child? Could they tell in the speaking of his name that the world was shifting now beneath their feet?
Did Zechariah, however many miles away he was, perhaps bouncing his own son on his knee, feel the ancient blessing stirred inside of him?
Could they tell, only a few miles away from Jerusalem, that they were now speaking with great ease and fluency a name as holy as the Name of God that they had meticulously avoided saying out loud, lest they should blaspheme and take that holy Name in vain?
Did they remember who it was who had named this child? That like his cousin, John, his name had been delivered by message of the archangel Gabriel who told Mary that she would bear a son, and that she should name him Jesus?
But God delights to allow us all to Name this Child Jesus: to call him by his name; to know him by it, and to be known by him, by name. Year after year, month after month, day after day, God allows us to Name this Child in our hearts… because to name him is to know who he is, and who his father is, and to claim the power of the Holy Spirit whose over-shadowing conceived him in the womb of his mother.
You and I will name other children. Some of you have known the joy of naming your own children, and offering prayers of thanksgiving to the God who knows us each by name. But when we Name this Child we speak the name of our salvation, and heaven’s portals open, and hell quakes with the echoes of the name that spells its doom, and the angels delight to hear the Name given to God’s Son.
So let us make only one new year’s resolution this year, and let us keep it together right now: Let us Name this Child, Jesus. Name him as your Lord and Savior. Name him as your friend and Companion. Name him as your joy and your love.
Name this Child. Name him Jesus, and then hear him call you by Name, and tell you that he loves you, and always has, since he, too, knows you by Name.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
1 January 2012
Saint Mark’s Church, Phialdelphia