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A Feast Rich in Names, Meaning and Mission

December 27, 2016
Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, Year A - Sunday, January 1st, 2017
The Jewish New Year
The Jewish Feast of Rosh Hashanah, meaning literally the “beginning of the year,” occurs on the first of the Hebrew month Tishre and inaugurates the solemn Jewish season which concludes with Yom Kippur. In the Bible, the Jewish New Year Festival is called the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar and the Memorial of the blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn). This instrument is designed to sound the alarm of the forthcoming solemn season, to awaken Jewry to prayer and repentance. It serves as a call to remember the historical events which made Israel a people, whether at Mount Sinai or on its entrance into Israel, or on the occasion of the proclamation of the Jubilee year. In Jewish liturgy, this feast also has two other names: Day of Memorial and Day of Judgment. Each of the different names of the Festival conveys one of its special characteristics.
Rosh Hashanah is not an opportunity for excess and mirth. If Jews rejoice in the festival, it is only in the knowledge that life still holds out the promise of better things. It is the occasion of self-examination, a time when, in the words of their prayers, all creatures are remembered before God. It is a Day of Judgment, not only in the Divine sense, but in the sense that on this day all Jews should judge their own actions. It is also a day of remembrance, not only of great events of the dim past, but also of the incidents of the human journey over the past year. Rosh Hashanah invites all Jews to recall with gratitude the many times they have been delivered from mishap and pain by the unseen hand of the Almighty One.
January 1: The Christian New Year
The Christian New Year is celebrated on January 1, one week after the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Like the Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah, January 1 has also been given several different names that reveal something of the nature of the feast. We could say that this feast is rich in names, meaning, and mission. First of all, the Christian New Year is within the Octave of Christmas (i.e. eight days after the birth of Jesus). Before the liturgical renewal of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Christian New Year was called the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus or the Naming of Jesus (the Holy Name of Jesus). After the Second Vatican Council, January 1 was established as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of the Lord, and it has also been designated as the World Day of Prayer for Peace.
At first glance, we may ask ourselves if the New Year’s Feast has accumulated so many different meanings that people no longer pay attention to it. Furthermore, is it also not true that the atmosphere of revelry attached to New Year’s Eve hardly leaves anyone with the energy, desire, or willingness to consider New Year’s Day as a religious feast? Or, is it possible to consider the Christian New Year in light of the Jewish New Year, and try to find unity and meaning in the various traditions now associated with this feast?
Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus
Let us consider some of the biblical foundations for the various meanings attached to the Christian New Year. In antiquity and in the Scriptures, it is a common belief that the name given to a person is not just a label but part of the personality of the one who bears it. The name carries will and power. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem to Jewish parents (Matthew 1-2; Luke 1-2). At his conception, it was proclaimed by an angel that his name would be “Jesus.” The Hebrew and Aramaic name “Yeshua” (Jesus) is a late form of the Hebrew “Yehoshua” or Joshua.
Eight days after his birth, Jesus underwent circumcision, the enduring sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people (Luke 2:21-24). The Greek christos translates the Hebrew mashiah, “anointed one”; by this name Christians confessed their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. In the New Testament, the name, person, and work of God are inseparably linked to those of Jesus Christ. True disciples of Jesus are to pray in his name (John 14:13-14). In John 2:23, believing in the name of Jesus is believing in him as the Christ, the Son of God (3:18). The name of Jesus has power only where there is faith and obedience (Mark 9:38-39). Believing in the holy name of Jesus leads to confession of the name (Hebrews 13:15). Calling on this name is salvation.
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of the Lord
“Mary” comes from the Hebrew “Miriam” whose etymology is probably from the Egyptian word meaning “beloved.” She is the disciple par excellence who introduces us to the goodness and humanity of God. Mary received and welcomed God’s word in the fullest sense, not knowing how the story would finally end. She did not always understand that word throughout Jesus’ life but she trusted and constantly recaptured the initial response she had given the angel and literally “kept it alive,” “tossed it around,” “pondered it” in her heart (Luke 2:19). It was only on a Friday afternoon at Calvary, some 33 years later, that she would experience the full responsibility of her “yes.”
Daughter of Zion
Vatican II gave Mary a new title and role in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium #52. For the first time, the Church officially referred to her as the “Daughter of Zion,” a title with a rich Scriptural foundation. The title evokes the great biblical symbolism of the Messianic Zion. Mary is mother both of the Messiah and of the new people of God: the individual person and the whole people being very closely united, in line with the cultural structures of Israel. For the prophets, the Daughter of Zion was the spouse of the Lord when she observed the covenant. As “Mother Zion,” she not only welcomes and represents Israel, but the Church, the People of God of the New Covenant. Mary is the first Daughter of Zion, leading all of God’s people on the journey towards the Kingdom.
Mary’s womanhood is not in itself a sign of salvation but it is significant for the manner and way in which salvation happens. There is salvation in no other name but that of the man Jesus, but through this woman, Mary, we have humanity’s assent to salvation. The Holy Names of Jesus and Mary are joined together in a very special way.
World Day of Prayer for Peace
The most recent “theme” attached to the Christian New Year has been the “World Day of Prayer for Peace.” Christians are invited to begin a New Year by praying for peace. But this action is not limited only to those who celebrate New Year’s on January 1! The Jewish people, in particular, are deeply united with Christians in praying for peace and making peace. Our God is peace. Even though we Christians consider God’s intervention in Jesus Christ to be decisive, this intervention did not represent the coming of the Messianic kingdom for our Jewish brothers and sisters.
In contemporary Christian theology, we have placed a strong emphasis on the “not yet” dimension of the Christ-event. As we wait together and work together as Christians and Jews for this Messianic kingdom, we must work together especially in the areas of justice and peace. The Jewish people are privileged partners with Christians in bringing about this kingdom of justice, love and peace. The Messianic kingdom for both Christians and Jews still lies ahead. It is not enough for us simply to pray for peace. We must work for peace, together. That is the work of those who long for the Messiah’s kingdom to fully take hold of our lives and our world.
A time to remember and give thanks
New Year’s is a time to reminisce about the past and to share hopes for the future. Authentic religion teaches us a reverence for life and gives us a sense of the holiness of God’s name. When we consider the various meanings attached to Rosh Hashanah and to the Christian New Year, we see some clear parallels. The God that Jews and Christians worship does not seek the death of sinners, but that they may return to Him and live. Both Judaism and Christianity teach that to destroy a single life is to destroy an entire world and to sustain a single life is to sustain an entire world.
The Jewish-Christian God speaks this word to all peoples: ‘Seek me and live,’ and ‘Choose life.’ Jews and Christians exist to reveal the holiness of God’s name and God’s sovereignty over all creation. In a world filled with so many voices and things demanding first place, Judaism and Christianity recognize God as sovereign over all creation. Finally, Jews and Christians yearn for the day when swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Rosh Hashanah and the Christian New Year are excellent opportunities for the celebration of life, a commitment to uphold its dignity and sacredness, and a plea for its continuance. They are feasts when we beg to be joined with women and men of good will everywhere, especially with those who know God as the God of the Exodus, and those who know God as the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of this New Year of grace, may the Lord give us an ever deeper sense of the holiness of the names of Jesus and Mary. May God send us out on mission, to be instruments and agents of life and peace.
[The readings for this Solemnity are: Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; and Luke 2:16-21.]
(Image: Adoration of the Shepherds by James Tissot)
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