Becoming persons

Daily Reading for January 1 • The Feast of the Holy Name

Back in the 1950s you opened up the newspaper on the first January certain to find the cartoonists trotting out the images of the little baby in diapers imprinted with the new year’s numbers, and old Father Time with his hourglass and scythe. These secular symbols are already so threadbare that in comparison the scriptural image of today’s liturgy, the Feast of the Holy Name, seems quite dramatic and still replete with meaning. Here the child held up before us is a real infant, and the figure with the sharp blade a real elder who cuts the flesh of the boy as the sign of the covenant with Abraham, while his parents give him his name. We are present at a fateful event: the newborn is becoming a person. And we are also persons, are becoming persons. This feast has to do with us. This becoming a person is what we would know the meaning of.

Seven full days have passed since the birth of Jesus. A week of namelessness, a symbolic hiatus. The infant is only a newborn. Only on the eighth day does the trajectory of the child’s human identity begin; he is acknowledged as a member of the community. He is inserted into its history, claimed by its tradition, and given a destiny within its future by naming. This name that bears his future is one that gathers up into a single sound the whole past experience and hope of his forebears and parents. Yahweh Saves. It is the name of the leader who took the desert wanderers into the promised land.

The feast is no longer called by its old name, the Feast of the Circumcision. Perhaps we are appalled to think about the radical givenness of identity that the irrevocable surgery on a helpless infant expresses so sharply—literally as a matter of flesh and blood. Before there is an I to choose, others choose and must mold and make me and do what calls me into life as a person in a particular community. Each of us is marked for life by the scandal of initial absolute dependence and vulnerability to the cutting edge of our situation. The persons we become can never dissolve or undo this givenness, though some of the wounds may heal and some of the blessings be lost.

From “Seek My Face” in Nativities and Passions: Words for Transformation by Martin L. Smith (Cowley Publications, 1995).

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