The First Sunday of Christmas and The Naming of Jesus in Year B

All Nature Sings!

 Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011

                                                                                                By Dennis Ormseth

 

Sunday, January 1, 2012, may be observed as either the First Sunday of Christmas or as the festival of Name of Jesus, appointed for New Year’s Day. Either option serves to open up major themes of Christian proclamation concerning God’s creation and our care for it. Our comments on the readings for the First Sunday of Christmas continues reflection on the reasons for nature’s praise at Christmas, and on the relocation of God’s presence from the Jerusalem temple to Jesus and the associated question of our reorientation to the creation. The comments included here on the readings for Name of Jesus, which include some of the most significant texts relevant to the theology of creation, is only slightly changed from Year A in this series, as these texts remain the same.

 

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012

First Sunday of Christmas

Psalm 148

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:22-40

 

“All Nature Sings”

The readings for the First Sunday after Christmas conform to the pattern of praise and witness we have observed in the Christmas lectionary so far. The circle of nature’s praise is dramatically enlarged, and our understanding of the reason for this praise is deepened. Psalm 148 is the classic example of the points made by Fretheim regarding nature’s praise (see the introduction to our comments on the lessons for The Nativity of Our Lord).  Heavens, heights, all the host of angels, sun, moon, shining stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens; sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind; mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, and human beings. The list amply illustrates the psalmist’s “ecological” awareness: each entity contributes its unique voice, but it does so in complementary ways as an orchestrated whole

 

The Lord creates the fruits of the earth and the fruits of righteousness

Why does all creation raise this extraordinary chorus of praise? The psalm itself emphasizes God’s generative, ordering creativity: God “commanded and they were created;” God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” All things know their limits and work together cooperatively and sustainably. The reading from Isaiah adds more seasonal focus to this by repeating words from the Third Sunday of Advent, words that revel in awareness of God’s saving presence among God’s faithful, an awareness that is connected to renewed vitality of the earth: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God causes righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” But it is the story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem that gives us a most surprising justification for the praise of God by all creation.

 

On the surface, the story of the presentation of Jesus to the Lord in the temple is a rather straightforward tale of obedience to the traditions of Israel. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, “the Messiah will emerge from within a family and social world deeply enmeshed in the traditions of Israel, a pious and expectant ‘people of God.’ His parents observe the laws regarding circumcision, purification, and presentation of the first born as dedicated to the Lord, and do so within the symbolic heart of the people, Jerusalem, and its Temple” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p.  56). Yet the observance here is anything but conventional. The temple is the holy center of national life, and the boy is brought there to be “designated as holy to the Lord” (2:23). But his holiness clearly derives from elsewhere, as the prophetic Simeon acknowledges by the power of the Holy Spirit which has drawn him to this encounter with “the Lord’s Messiah.” Jesus is the “salvation” God has “prepared in the presence of all people.”

 

Jesus is the salvation that loves, heals, and transforms

Fred Strickert highlights the irony of the scene: “a closer examination of the text brings to light a stark contrast between the old reality and the world into which Jesus was born and the new reality of his life and ministry.” In this sacred space, access to which was limited to Jews and only partially open to Jewish women, Simeon declares Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” without distinction or qualification. And what he has to say will be heard by Mary and witnessed by the ancient Anna, herself also a prophetess. Simeon, Strickert suggests, “sees what others would not and declares inclusion of the whole world in this place of exclusion.” Similarly, Anna, “a woman doing a man’s job,” blesses the child. “These two represent all of those without title that Jesus will meet, love, heal, and transform.” (Beth Tanner, “First Sunday of Christmas,” in New Proclamation, Year B 2012 Advent through Holy Week, p. 46-47. Strickert’s comment is quoted by Tanner from his article, “The Presentation of Jesus:  The Gospel of Inclusion.  Luke 2:22-40,” Currents in Theology and Mission 22, no. 1 (1995): 33.) 

 

The temple and its place in Jewish national life are clearly being challenged by the infant boy brought there for blessing. This challenge has been anticipated in the sequence of lections read during Advent and Christmas, as the opening of the Gospel of Mark presented a clear break with the temple-state in favor of “the one who is coming,” and the Gospel of John confirms this transfer of God’s presence from the temple, first to the womb of Mary and then to the house of the church with the proclamation of the Word made flesh, whose glory we have seen, “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14; see our comments on the lections for the Sundays of Advent and for Christmas for the development of this theme). In having Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple, Luke might seem on the one hand to resist this transfer, or at least ignore it;  the Isaian prophecy of the first reading might prompt us, after all, to see in the presentation itself the fulfillment of prophecy concerning Jerusalem and its temple: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch”  (62:1-2). Yet we note that even this prophecy points to “the nations” who shall see this vindication, and to “all the kings” who will see God’s glory. Just so, the prophet Simeon announces “the light for revelation to the Gentiles” and of glory “to your people Israel.” And if the prophetess Anna speaks of the child precisely “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,” it is because these two affirmations complement each other. As we recalled in our comment on Mary’s Magnificat on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, God’s promises to Abraham included a blessing to be a blessing for all the nations. Jerusalem and its temple is no longer at the center of God’s story.

 

God moves from the temple to the creation at large

If Mark suggested displacement of God from the temple to Jesus, here the appropriation of the temple and its meanings fit better here as a description of Luke’s strategy, just as it does for the Gospel of John. The temple is not without ongoing significance in the course of Jesus’ life and mission (See the list of relevant passages in David Tiede, Luke, p. 74). And indeed, its meaning for him already casts a shadow over the boy’s future here in the story of the presentation. As Simon tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This foreshadowing of the opposition that Jesus will encounter and the crucifixion that such opposition will lead to is symbolized here by the mention of the “pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons’ the offering of the poor which Joseph and Mary  brought for sacrifice.

 

Borg and Crossan’s observation about the Christmas stories being “parabolic overtures” to their gospels which, with great economy and literary creativity, serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole’” of each narrative is again well taken. In this perspective even the smallest detail may register a profound shift in perspective and meaning. For an evangelist that “is interested in temple practices and settings, and intent on demonstrating the faithfulness of Jesus and his followers to true temple worship” (so writes David Tiede, Ibid.), the matter of the sacrifices mentioned here is a bit of a puzzle. The text mentions both the ritual of consecration of the firstborn (Exodus 13:20) and the sacrifice for the purification of the mother (Leviticus 12:8).  But, as Tiede points out, “Luke speaks of ‘their purification,’”  implying that both Mary and Joseph are purified. And while the law actually stipulated a redemption price of five shekels for the consecration of the boy and a lamb and a dove or two doves for the ritual cleansing of the mother, only the later is mentioned, and the less costly offering provided for the poor is the option taken. Gordon Lathrop thinks that Luke conflates the traditions here: “the birds for the sacrifice being juxtaposed to the ‘presented’ child.” The conflation goes to support a key point of the text, Lathrop suggests, because it reminds us that the temple is

 

“a place of ritual killing. That the child is carried into that place makes us hear the text in a certain way. In succeeding texts in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus will be spoken against in the temple (Luke 20:1ff) and his death will be prophesied there (20:15; cf. 19;47). If he is “set” for the falling and rising of many in Israel, it is as a stone in temple building (20:17-18), which is rejected and yet becomes the source and ground of the rising new temple. He falls and rises and so is the source of all rising (Lathrop, “The First Sunday after Christmas,’ in Proclamation 4: Advent/Christmas, Series B, pp. 52-53).

 

Thus, the Gospel of the day brings Jesus’ future suffering into the midst of Christmas. The shadow of the crucifixion darkens the entry of the family into the temple. But the story foreshadows even more; and it is this “more” that makes clear the justification for the fulsome praise of all creation.

 

As several commentators have noted, Simeon’s song has been appropriated to the Christian eucharistic liturgy as the canticle following distribution of the bread and wine. The words are of course entirely appropriate: in the service, we, too, have seen God’s “salvation, which God has prepared in the presence of all peoples.” But perhaps more yet is intended here. Simeon is a prophetic figure, but he is commonly represented in Christian art as a priest. This assumption is natural, not only because he comes to the temple, but also because the pattern of this story confirms closely to the ordo of the Christian liturgy. The participants in the story have been gathered there by the Holy Spirit. Simeon takes the boy up in his arms and praises God. But then he bespeaks of the boy’s future suffering and death, with which Mary is now incorporated: a sword will pierce her soul, too. Just as bread and wine are taken and lifted up in blessing, then broken and distributed, so also is the boy taken, lifted up in blessing, and his breaking is anticipated in speech inspired by the Holy Spirit. And as at her annunciation, Mary is the church, whose destiny is identified with that of the child. We who hear this story read aloud in the assembly of the congregation know ourselves to be allies of the suddenly present and active Anna, who gives thanks and who proceeds to spread the word, speaking “about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

 

In the meal is revealed grace by which the incarnate God is given to all creation.

If this encounter cannot be described as the first Christian Eucharist, it nonetheless anticipates that meal with sufficient clarity to justify the praise of all creation which we join to the story in our singing of Psalm 148. Here is revealed the means of grace by which the incarnate God will be given to all creation. As Lathrop again notes, as the temple suggests the theme of suffering, it “also suggests the theme of light. This house is, after all, the ancient dwelling place of the glory of God. It is the place of light.” The new temple “of which this child is the cornerstone is not a place of killing. His suffering is the end of that” (Ibid. p. 53).

 

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation

There is much to consider here, but, surely, we can understand that creation has reason to praise God. In the first place, in place of the practice of animal sacrifice is substituted the eventual sacrifice of the cross, which brings healing and new life to the world God loves. The non-human animals among God’s creatures will surely rejoice! More fundamentally, as a comment by Christopher Southgate (which we quoted a year ago as we reflected on the story of Herod’s killing of the innocents) brings out, God’s presence to the creation is here revealed to be a suffering presence “of the most profoundly attentive and loving sort, a solidarity that at some deep level takes away the aloneness of the suffering creature’s experience” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, p. 52). The incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is accordingly “the event by which God takes this presence and solidarity with creaturely existence to its utmost, and thus ‘takes responsibility’ for all the evil in creation—both the humanly wrought evil and the harms to all creatures” (Ibid., p. 76). Just so, since this pertains to all creatures, considered both as collective species and as individuals, all things and all creatures find reason to rejoice, and do so greatly. In our Christmas worship, we are privileged to join in their song.

 

 

All nature sings

 

The Lord creates the fruits of the earth and the fruits of righteousness

 

Jesus is the salvation that loves, heals, and transforms

 

God moves from the temple to the creation at large

 

In the meal is revealed grace by which the incarnate God is given to all creation.

 

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation

 

 

 

 

Exercising Dominion is servanthood and stewardship

 

Name of Jesus

Psalm 8

Numbers 6:22-27

Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11

Luke 2:15-21

 

Here is a place for personal and congregational resolutions to care of Earth.

The readings for the festival of Name of Jesus observed on January 1 provide an exceptionally strong platform for personal and congregational resolutions concerning commitments to care of the earth here at the beginning of a New Year. That this “lesser festival” falls on a Sunday this year means that more congregations than usual will observe it, particularly if they have a tradition of a New Year’s Day Service.

 

The Gospel reading brings to completion the birth narrative of Luke. The infant is circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with Jewish custom and law, and named “Jesus” as instructed by the angel who announced his conception to Mary his mother at 1:31.  The name, which means “the Lord saves” or “salvation from God,” tells us not only who this boy is (the Lord), but also what he is to do (save). As we have noted in our comments on the readings for Christmas Eve, in the cultural context of the Roman Empire, this would be to say that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord; and that his mission is “to save,” in accordance with the messianic hope of the Jewish people, by establishing God’s peace with justice and righteousness, as opposed to the imperial peace with victory. The accompanying readings reframe these affirmations in terms of their bearing on care of creation.

 

The first reading reminds us of the importance of God’s name in the Hebrew tradition. Frederick Houk Borsch sums it up this way: “The Lord’s name pronounced over them in blessing makes the Israelites God’s people. They are identified with and by God (see also Deut. 12:5 and esp. Isa. 43:1, “I have called you by my name, you are mine”).  This makes them responsible to live as a people who honor God and show forth God’s righteousness and mercy in the world. It also makes God responsible for a people who are God’s own. The name is identity. It is character. It is powerful.” (New Proclamation Year B, 2002-2003, p. 59). In this light, the naming of Jesus would seem to do all this for him: Jesus is identified as God’s messiah, the character of God is conferred upon him, and he is promised the power to do God’s will.

 

The first reading thus emphasizes Jesus’ relationship to God. The reading of Psalm 8, on the other hand, shifts attention to his humanity. Linked to the other readings for the festival by the psalmist’s praise of God’s “name” in its opening salutation, the psalm has also been seen to have christological meaning because of its reference to ben adam (v. 4), which when translated literally as “son of man” was interpreted as one of the New Testament titles for Christ. While ben adam has been translated more anthropologically in the NRSV as “mortals,” a Christological interpretation of the psalm is nonetheless still of interest here.

 

What are humans in the immensity of the universe?

The psalm gives voice to one who honors God’s name: “O lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”  As Frederick Borsch comments, the reading presents the picture of “the psalmist gazing up at the night sky like Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle citadels there!’ We now look up and know that there are more than 100 billion galaxies!” The psalmist is humbled by this awesome vision: “What is human life in this scheme?”  he asks.

 

Dominion is not domination but stewardship, partnership, servanthood, and priesthood.

What indeed? The question has long been central to the conflict over the role of the Christian tradition in fostering and/or restraining the destructive environmental behavior of humans in Western culture; this text, along with Genesis 1:26-28 to which it is related, is at the heart of the conflict. The psalmist clearly evokes the sense of awe and wonder that humans experience in contemplating the universe. At the same time, however, it proceeds to claim for human beings an exceptionally high status in relationship to the non-human creation: “You have given them dominion over the works of your hand; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field; the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.” Cultural historian Lynn White argued that the term “dominion” is the basis for Christian legitimation of human alienation from and domination over non-human nature, and this psalm is freely cited in support of his thesis. Biblical scholars have shown, however, that while some thinkers early in the history of the industrial revolution advanced this interpretation, it is not valid. “Dominion” is properly understood as the responsibility for preserving and caring for earth and all its creatures, a responsibility that has been characterized variously in terms of stewardship, partnership, servanthood, and priesthood. While there are significant differences attending the choice between these alternatives, they share a common premise that the human being has a God-given vocation relative to the non-human creation (see the numerous discussions, e.g. in Fretheim, Southgate, Green Bible, Mark Wallace, etc.). 

 

“What are people for?” queried Wendell Berry in the midst of an American farm crisis. Human beings are made for the care of creation, this text answers, however we best understand how that responsibility should be characterized and carried out. Yes, the text appears to authorize an exceptional status for human beings, due to powers of imagination and reason that are not necessarily different in kind from those of some non-human species, but certainly differ in degree. Humans are a species of animal life, but they do have demonstrated capacities of mind and spirit that far outrun even their closest kin in the non-human world. With respect to the environmental crisis, the question is not whether humans have these powers, but rather why it is that we use them so exclusively for our own, anthropocentric purposes and with such drastically destructive results for the rest of creation.

 

Psalm 8 suggests we have a vocation to care for creation.

Read as a christological text coupled with the day’s Gospel reading, Psalm 8 leads us to suggest that, as a human being, Jesus fully embraced that very same vocation of care of creation. His fulfillment of that vocation can be regarded as an essential part of what it means to call him by his name, Jesus, or “the Lord saves.” Jesus does what humans were created to do: care for the earth by exercising their God-given powers of mind and spirit to the benefit of all creation. This is what his “dominion” is finally about.

 

Philippians 2 explains how—as a servant with not desires to be equal with God.

The validity of this perspective needs to be tested, of course, as we take up the full narrative of his life and mission in the Gospels. How does Jesus actually demonstrate care of creation? we will need to ask. The alternative second reading from Philippians 2 already provides a crucial insight, however, as to the manner by which Jesus fulfills this vocation. What Jesus does not do, the text tells is, is to seek equality with God:  Even “though he was in the form of God,” the text reads, he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

 

“Grasping after divine status” is, after all, an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind as narrated in Genesis 2: Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. As the wily serpent knew, they would most certainly want to slip the noose of mortality if there was a way to do it. If they are indeed made only “a little lower than God” and “crowned with glory and honor,” why not reach for the top? Why not exercise our powers as though we are actually divine, determining for ourselves the purposes, values, and uses of all things below us? Vested with such powers of reason and spirit as we manifestly have, why not live as though there are no limits to our being, including those imposed upon our animal bodies, embedded as they are within the ecology of Earth and subject to the dying that is an inherent aspect of its biology?

 

And by looking to the interests of others, including all Earth-community.

Being saved by Jesus could mean, accordingly, that we are no longer driven to grasp for equality with God, that we also refuse to exploit for ourselves the nearly divine powers conferred upon us. Even when we legitimately come to see ourselves as being drawn up into the life of the Triune God and participating in that life as children of God—and therefore in some sense equal in status to the Son of God (no longer slaves but heirs)—the Spirit of God’s Son in our hearts (see Galatians 4: 6-7) conforms our mind to his, so that we “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than” ourselves, looking not to our own interests, but to the interest of others.” As Christopher Southgate writes,

 

The Christian conviction is that Jesus gives us the example of what it is to keep one’s orientation firmly and wholly on God, and to derive all one’s strength from that. One’s life is from moment to moment not one’s own possession, but something received as a gift from God. What is said of Christ’s equality with God in Philippians 2 is true of authentic human being in itself—that it is not something to be grasped at, but to be received and responded to in service of God and others” (p. 73). 

 

In summary, Jesus saves by restoring us not only to right relationship with God and our fellow humans, but also to the loving service of the non-human creation for which God originally created us. 

 

Here is a place for personal and congregational resolutions to care of Earth.

 

What are humans in the immensity of the universe?

 

Dominion is not domination but stewardship, partnership, servanthood, and priesthood.

 

Psalm 8 suggests we have a vocation to care for creation.

 

Philippians 2 explains how—as a servant with not desires to be equal with God.

 

And by looking to the interests of others, including all Earth-community.

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