The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

Sermon by By Christopher Ward


Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:15-21

May I speak in the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Why does the Church celebrate the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, a significant rite of passage for male Jewish babies, but nonetheless an event to which Luke devotes but a single purely factual sentence in his Gospel, in fact, little more than an aside? Luke sandwiches in this sentence between two other much more spectacular events – his account of the angels’ revelation of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, and his account of the events surrounding Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple forty days after his birth, the event we commemorate at Candlemas.

To help answer this question, I want to pose another – what’s in a name? Often, the answer is ‘quite a lot’. Names are what identify us, and they often have a history behind them, perhaps family, perhaps where we came from, and sometimes to hide something.[1] My parents gave me three names, including one from each of my grandfathers. We gave each of our daughters a Welsh name, in recognition of Virginia’s Welsh heritage. And years ago, I knew a young man who had three names, the last of which was shared with, and in honour of, the family cat, Timothy!

Now let us imagine Mary and Joseph thinking about names for their new baby boy. We know that Mary and Joseph were both observant Jews; Luke tells us[2] that they used to go each year to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. So why might they not be thinking in terms of a classical Jewish name, such as Abraham, or Jacob, or David? The answer is, of course, in Luke’s Gospel:[3] at the time of her conception the angel that came from God told Mary to call ‘the holy child … Son of God’ by the name of Jesus.[4] And Mary, ever obedient to God duly gave her baby that name. So the name Jesus reflects the divinity of the child, as did the spectacular revelation of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields that night. We celebrate today the establishment of Jesus’ identity.

But Jesus on earth was also as human as you and I. He was born in precisely the same way as each of us, and he died just as we will all die one day. Jesus’ coming to earth was not like many a Boris Johnson visit to a factory, where in the inevitable photo-call he plays at being a worker. Jesus was indeed divine, but he was also as human as we are.

We only have to look at the miracles described in the Gospels to see evidence of Jesus’ divinity, but how much do we find in them about Jesus the person? The answer is, very little. Luke tells us[5] that Jesus lived in Nazareth with his parents and “grew big and strong and full of wisdom, and God’s favour was upon him”. He also tells us that Jesus was rather a naughty boy when he was twelve and slipped off to the Temple without telling them![6] But apart from that, we know precious little about him personally. So it is quite easy for us to overlook the fact that the Jesus who came to earth was as human as he was divine.

And I believe that it is important for us not to forget, and to value the humanity of Jesus just as much as we value his divinity. First and foremost, it is central to our hope of salvation that Jesus came to us as both human and divine: if he had not been fully human he could not have taken on the burden of our sins and if he had not been divine he could not have conquered them and set them aside. Second, as we look back on Advent, and our reflection on the Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell – we can have confidence that we will be judged by a Lord and Master whose nature it is not only to be merciful, but by a Lord and Master who also has personally experienced life on earth, and all the challenges and dilemmas it brings for us.

And I believe that this experience is important. Many years ago, a prominent political commentator on social policy accepted a challenge to live for a month solely on the income a healthy single man with no assets would receive from the State by way of social security. His response to the challenge led to a significant change of view. Experience counts.

And because it revolves around, and emphasises, the humanity of Jesus is one reason that I think the festival we celebrate today is so important. We see Jesus being treated in the same way as any other Jewish boy of his age, and we will see the same thing in four weeks time at Candlemas – Luke disposes of the ritual itself factually in much the same way as the Naming, but this time in three verses[7], before going on to describe at much greater length the recognition of the divine by Simeon and Anna.

So as we are inspired by the teachings of Jesus the Son of God, let’s not lose sight of what it means that he was born of Mary.


[1] For example, many Jews who fled from Nazi Germany to English-speaking countries Anglicised their names, often fearing otherwise becoming the target of anti-German feeling.

[2] Luke 2:41

[3] Luke 1:31 and 2:21

[4] Luke 1:35

[5] Luke 2:40

[6] Luke 2::41-50

[7] Luke 2:22-24