Saturday, 10 April 2010

What's in a name? asked Juliet

Sermon for Sunday 11th April 2010 – Low Sunday/Easter 2

Today is the 2nd Sunday of Easter but it also has lots of other names by which it is known in various Christian traditions.

It is known as Low Sunday, presumably to emphasize the contrast with the high feast of Easter Sunday. As the last day of the Octave of Easter it is the tailing off of the euphoria and the emotional high of the Resurrection.

It is known as St Thomas’ Sunday, after Doubting Thomas who is the protagonist in today’s Gospel and whose doubting paradoxically leads to that famous proclamation of faith: “My Lord and my God”

It is known also in the Roman Catholic Church as Divine Mercy Sunday and is particularly important in Poland where this feast day originated and of course in the light of this weekends plane crash our thoughts are very much with the Polish people in their national grief.

Most interestingly perhaps it is known as Quasimodo Sunday!
Quasimodo, was the central character of the 1831 French novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, and was found abandoned on the doorsteps of Notre Dame on the Sunday after Easter, 1467 AD.
The name Quasimodo comes from the first two words of the ancient and traditional opening Antiphon at the Eucharist on this Sunday that speak especially to those baptized at Easter: It comes from Ist Peter 2:2
Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus.
Which translates as:
As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Rejoice to God our helper. Sing aloud to the God of Jacob.
And so Victor Hugo’s famous character is named for the feastday when he is found

And finally, It is the day that the newly baptized officially put away their white robes, hence, it is known liturgically as
"Dominica in albis depositis" or the "Sunday of putting away the albs."

Five names for but one day!!!
So the obvious question…..What’s in a name?
That very question is asked in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet in Act 2 Scene 2 when Juliet says:
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet meet and fall in love in Shakespeare's famous play. They are doomed from the start as members of two warring families. Here Juliet tells Romeo that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves the person who is called "Montague", not the Montague name and not the Montague family. Romeo, out of his passion for Juliet, rejects his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to "deny (his) father" and instead be "new baptized" as Juliet's lover. This one short line sums up the central struggle and tragedy of the play. There is a lot in a name and not all of it good all of the time
In a sense Juliet was right and put her finger (Or Shakespeare did) on the importance of focussing on what the name refers to rather than the name itself. Sometimes names get in the way as was certainly and tragically the case for Romeo & Juliet.

But names are important! They say something of how we understand ourselves, and that self understanding to a large part determines our behaviour for better or worse.

A name says a lot – It can convey great power. Even after his death Jesus’ Name was hugely powerful! Today’s lesson from Acts chapter 5 finds Peter and the Apostles summoned before the high priest for what? For “teaching in this name” – the name of Jesus!
It is this name that inspires these same Apostles to be ‘witnesses to these things’ – that “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins
And the nature of that witness is not a passive one but one which brings the Apostles into direct conflict with the religious and secular authorities just like Jesus himself.
The Apostles didn’t just carry the name of Christ but they brought Christ himself into their mission. They brought that name to life by becoming living witnesses to what Jesus had done and what he was still doing in them.

To this day we carry the name of Christ as Christians for that very same purpose but there is a very real risk that we witness to Christianity but not Christ and they are not the same. As Juliet in Romeo and Juliet so wisely perceived – the name gets in the way.
One of my clerical colleagues put it very clearly recently in an exchange of correspondence he and I were sharing. He said this:
"If your are convinced that you are an institution established and ordained by God in its institutional structure (rather than a community called by God which gives a contingent and temporary institutional form to that calling) then protecting the institution becomes a divinely given duty"
Sometimes we elevate our earthly institutions into idols and loose contact with that to which they point. In a sense the medium becomes the message and the message is lost or even worst distorted and twisted.

Our sister church on this Island is going through an extreme example of this at the moment but we Anglicans need not think we can rest on our laurels. We too are an institutional church and live constantly with the tension between serving the institution or serving Christ. The two are not always an identity though we tend to behave as if they are and suspend our critical faculties.

On this St Thomas’ Sunday we might do well to reinstate those critical faculties and not be afraid to ask questions of our own church and to challenge it when the name gets in the way. We need to ask ourselves are there times when we put being a member of the Church of Ireland, a Protestant, an Anglican, a Reformed Catholic or even a Christian ahead of being a follower of Jesus Christ. None of those names is necessarily contradictory with being a follower of Jesus but if and when (because it does happen) we see those names as an end in themselves then the name will have got in the way!

What’s in a name?
The answer is that when compared to the divine name there is nothing in a name but the potential to witness to that which brought it life and breath and hope. There is but one name which is identical to that which it describes and that is God (Father, Son & Holy Spirit). When we make absolutes of any other name we make idols and we cut off the potential that is in us to be witnesses to and for God in the World. Don’t let any other name get in the way of that!


Joc Sanders said...

A fine sermon, Stephen - we shall have to live with the tension between serving the church as institution and serving Christ for a while yet, I think.

I understand the name Low Sunday comes from the traditional canticle for today, Laudate Domino, and not for any come down after Easter!

Stephen Neill said...

Thanks Joc - I suspect you are right.

Thanks also for the correction re Low Sunday - must review my sources :)

pat gilmartin said...

Hi Stephen,nice one. Would Christmas day be the same as Xmas day? [Greek] regards