Text: Luke 2:21-40 (Jesus presented at the Temple)
This week, as the calendar changes from December 2020 to January 2021, how will we name the year that is passing? Many have already named it the year of the pandemic, although it did not start out that way.
On January 1st this year, Kim and I landed back in Edmonton after a post-Christmas trip to Philadelphia to be at the wedding of my sister Catherine.
At Mill Woods United, we began the year in January with a joint worship service with our Zimbabwean friends. In February, we enjoyed a “Movie Madness” evening. In March we held a successful Young Adult Lunch. On March 8 we met for our Annual General Meeting at which I imagine most of us looked forward to ten more months of spirited Sunday gatherings, fund-raisers, and opportunities to engage with the community in old and new ways.
As 2020 began, I assumed the year would be dominated by a struggle to preserve democracy in the United States. In the end, and after four years of authoritarian rule, the November 3 presidential election was a near thing. If the United States had managed to deal with the pandemic as well as Canada’s governments, the President would have won in a landslide. As it was, he got 11 million more votes than he received in 2016 but seven million fewer votes than President-elect Joe Biden.
In three weeks, I will breathe a sigh of relief when executive power in the U.S. is handed over to Biden. I am confident this will help not only with the pandemic but with other issues . . . and with my blood pressure. But I am negatively struck that the U.S. President was able to keep such high levels of support in the face of his racism, sexism, and deadly incompetence.
In February I enjoyed a week’s study leave at a United Church centre in Ontario and a week of vacation in Mexico with Kim. Although I had mentioned the new coronavirus in a Sunday reflection on February 2, I didn’t think the virus would affect us here in Edmonton.
All this changed when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11 and the Church Council closed the church facility on March 16. For these reasons, some date the start of 2020 to mid-March.
The pandemic has upended so much. Despite extraordinary public health efforts by both governments and individuals, more than 80 million people have become ill and nearly two million have died, including 15,000 in Canada. Businesses have failed and unemployment has mushroomed. Only the rollout of vaccines this month provides hope for the 70% of the world still ravaged by the pandemic.
Because of the impending change in the U.S. administration and because of new vaccines, I look forward in hope to 2021 even as I am sad at all the death and damage caused by the pandemic and the inequalities revealed by it.
But does it matter how we name years, or anything else for that matter?
Today’s Gospel reading is about the naming of the baby who was born in a stable in Bethlehem at Christmas. Mary and Joseph name him Jesus just as the Angel Gabriel had told them.
Like all names, “Jesus” has a history. The original texts of the New Testament were written in Greek so they use the name “Iesous.” Mary and Joseph spoke Aramaic, so they would have said Yeshua instead of Iesous. In Hebrew, Yeshua is Joshua, so a plausible English translation of Iesous could be Joshua, or even Josh. However, most English translations of the New Testament use Jesus, perhaps as a way to bind Christians from different language groups together.
“Iesous” literally means “He who Delivers,” or “Jehovah Saves.” The angel directs Mary and Joseph to name their son after the tribal God of the Jewish people. This situates the gospel stories in their Jewish context, although as the prophet Simeon notes in today’s passage, Jesus will both glorify Jehovah’s people, Israel, and be a light of revelation to the rest of the world.
The naming of Jesus sets up the rest of the narrative. Iesous is both Jehovah and king – both Jesus and Christ. For me, his execution on Good Friday symbolizes the end of illusions in tribal gods like Jehovah and in tribal kings like the anointed messiahs of Israel; and his resurrection at Easter symbolizes the rebirth of universal love and sovereignty in the heart of people of all tribes and nations who try to follow the Way.
Today’s passage from Luke contains the whole gospel in miniature. It mentions God and Christ, falling and rising, suffering and glory. In the name Jesus and in the commentaries of Simeon and Anna, we can see the whole roller-coaster ride of the gospel narrative.
Naming a calendar year is not as important as the naming of Jesus, of course. Nor will everyone label 2020 the same way. For some, it will be known for a personal triumph or tragedy. For others, it will be known as a year of reckoning around racial injustice. For still others, it will be a year of revelation – about public health, loneliness, and technological connectivity.
We don’t know what the new year will bring any more than we knew what 2020 would bring to us last Christmas. But I imagine that 2021 will be another year for the rising and falling of many, for the baring of secret thoughts, and for suffering so painful it will feel as though one’s heart had been pierced by a sword. It will also be a year filled with new revelations, solidarity in the pursuit of justice, and the rebirth of love after loss.
During 2021, we will once again be graced by the companionship of He Who Delivers — a saviour who was born as a helpless infant, who died as a rejected rebel, and who now lives within our hearts as a flame of eternal divinity and sacred sovereignty.
May it be so. Amen.