“When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
As the liturgy of the Church grew and developed over the centuries, this particular day – the octave, or eighth day, of Christ’s Nativity – has assumed different celebrations at different times.
For a time it was celebrated as the feastday of the Circumcision of the Lord. According to Jewish law, the male child is circumcised eight days after birth, and in this way he becomes a member of God’s Chosen People, entering the covenant of Abraham which is sealed by the sign of circumcision.
The eighth day is also day for the naming of the child. Jewish children took names that signified their consecration to God. In the case of Jesus, his name was revealed to Mary by the angel: “Jeshua,” which means “God saves.”
In Christianity we are no longer bound by the Law of Moses or the rubrics of the covenant with Abraham, since these are now fulfilled in the new covenant of Christ. Nevertheless, the ancient practices of the Old Testament still form the basis and pattern for the practices and rubrics of the New Covenant.
We do not keep the 8th day precept, but sometime shortly after the birth of a child we do bring him to church in order to consecrate him to God. We are no longer bound by circumcision, because the sacrament of Baptism now supersedes it, and makes us members of God’s People.
But one aspect of Jewish law we do still keep, which is the solemn naming of the child at baptism. Most people look to the birth certificate from the hospital to find out their name. But for a Catholic, his true name is the one that is recorded on the baptism certificate.
The other day, I was reminding Deacon Armando, who prepares the children for baptism, to carefully review the names being chosen by the parents, and ensure that each child is baptized with a Christian name. These days, as society becomes more secular, many names being chosen are no longer saints’ names. I told the deacon, if we come to the day of baptism and there is still not a Christian name, you add one yourself, such as “John” or “Mary.”
But we don’t actually celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus today, even though this was the day one which Jesus was named. That has been moved to January 3rd. What we celebrate today is another deeply important aspect of the Incarnation, which is the Divine Maternity. We honor the Virgin Mary as the “Theotokos,” which means “God-bearer,” or “Mother of God.”
In the early Church, there was a great devotion to the Virgin Mary, and she was highly honored since from her flesh God became Man. And she was addressed as the Theotokos. But after the persecutions had ended, the archbishop of Constantinople named Nestorius began to preach against the use of this title for Mary. To him, it disrespected God. How can a human creature be the mother of God? She was mother of Jesus’ human nature, but she is not the mother of his divine nature. She should be called “Mother of Christ,” but not “Mother of God.”
It became a great debate, and began to divide the Church. An ecumenical council was held at Ephesus in 431 to settle the matter, and the worldwide council of bishops affirmed the traditional practice of the Church since the time of the apostles which affirms the use of the title “Theotokos,” and they condemned the teaching of Nestorius as a great heresy which denies the truth about Christ.
Jesus is both true God and true Man, and in his singular personhood, these two natures are not divided. Motherhood is motherhood of the person, and not simply the nature. Jesus is a singular person, who in his personhood is divine: he is the second divine Person of the Holy Trinity. The person of whom Mary is the mother, and whom she gave birth, is God. Therefore, Mary is truly, “Mother of God.”
So the title of “Theotokos” by which we honor Mary, is actually saying something more about Jesus than Mary. It is an affirmation of the truth of the Incarnation. When we pray, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,” we are speaking accurately, and we are proclaiming the truth that Jesus is God. Those who do not want to address Mary as Mother of God, are really afraid to affirm Jesus her son, as True God. They are heretics.
There is one other interesting aspect to this feast day, and that is that it corresponds with the new year, January 1st. As the liturgy of the Church developed, the Christmas season was deliberately structured so that the octave of the Nativity corresponded with the arrival of the new year. The celebration of the birth of Christ corresponds with the celebration of the birth of the new year.
At first it may seem a little confusing, because the Church’s liturgical year already began with Advent, several weeks ago. But it actually makes sense. Just as a child already exists and has been conceived before birth, during the time of pregnancy, the Church’s new year already exists during Advent, even though it only “comes to birth” on January 1st. Advent is like a pregnancy, a time of joyful expectation. But now, what was longed for and looked for, has been born.
By juxtaposing the celebration of Christ’s Nativity with the birth of the new year, the Church is consecrating the new year. It is reminding us that “All times and seasons belong to Christ”; that Jesus is the “Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last.” As we sang in that beautiful entrance hymn:
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He.
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!
Today, in conjunction with the celebration of Christ’s Nativity, we celebrate the birth of the “Year of our Lord” – “Anno Domini” – 2014. We count the years in terms of the first Christmas. Every year is a new Christmas, when Christ is born again into the world, into time, into history, but now through the Church.
We must not abandon the traditional usage of the initials A.D. when we write the date. This is not just some ‘random year’ 2014, this is the Year 2014 of the world’s salvation in Christ! Every time you write the date on a piece of paper, on a form, or some certificate, remember that you are proclaiming a central truth of our faith, that this is the “fullness of time” and that Christ is the Lord of History.
We are moving inexorably to history’s completion. Another year brings us one year closer to that second coming of Christ, when history will be fulfilled. Let us then, dedicate this year to Christ, and ask Mary to bring Christ to birth in our lives. Let us live each day and month with God’s blessing, consecrating every moment of time to the glory of His holy Name.