As we enter a new calendar year, we have already been in the Church calendar for a month or so, which helps us to think along the lines of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us, rather than allowing this world’s concerns to form our thinking. The first day of 2017 (as with the first day of every year) reminds us of another new beginning: Jesus’ entry into the covenant of circumcision that God had established with Abraham. But, because Jesus is both God and Man, He does not only enter the covenant as just one more Israelite, but as the Israelite, the fulfiller of the covenant promises to Abraham. Because Jesus was circumcised, because He full-filled the covenant, and because in our baptism we are clothed with Christ, we no longer need to be circumcised to enter into God’s covenant with all people. Just as He died once for all, so He was circumcised once for all. With that circumcision, He already hinted at what was to come with the shedding of His infant blood. Because He was “cut,” we who are in Him will never be “cut off” from God’s covenant. (That was part of the meaning for the circumcised people of God in the Old Testament: if their males were not circumcised, they would be cut off from the people of God.) But the Church celebrates January 1 for another reason: the eighth day after birth was also the day of naming for Jewish babies. So Jesus was given the Name which the angel had told Mary, Yahshua: “Yah(weh) saves;” because He would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21; cf. Luke 1:31).
A new year. A year of expectation and anticipation. What kind of year are you hoping for? The Christian Church Year begins with expectation in Advent: expecting, hoping, waiting for the coming of our Lord in glory to complete the work He has begun in us and in the whole creation. There is always unfinished work to be done. The close of the year rarely means complete closure on the old year and a completely new start to the new one. We have no clean slate, however much we might want one. And so it is fitting that the same day we celebrate the beginning of our secular year, we also celebrate the circumcision and naming of Jesus. Our year begins with the shedding of blood. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22, ESV).
The secular year makes us think of metaphors such as “turning over a new leaf,” “turning the page,” beginning again. But it is the Church Year that teaches us where life begins again. It is the Church Year that draws us into the Life which is life abundant. So the Church Year teaches us about a real new beginning, and not just good intentions or resolutions to begin again. It draws us in, further and further, into the Life of Christ from birth (Christmas), revelation to all nations (Epiphany), suffering and death (Lent and Holy Week), all the way through to resurrection (Easter). But it also teaches us to be patient in the long periods of life when nothing seems to change much at all. That is Pentecost, and it reminds us that even when our life seems dry and desert-like, the life of the Church in Christ her Head is ever-green.
January is full of feast days (and I don’t mean the sort that go along with bowl games and New Year’s Day parties). I mean the sort of feast day that moves us through the life of Christ. We begin on January 1 with the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. On this day, we celebrate the fact that God sent Jesus to live under His Law for our sake (Galatians 4:4), as well as His receiving the name that is above every name, Jesus (Philippians 2:9-10). As the angel said, “For he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
January 6 is a significant date in the life of the Church. In fact, in the history of the Church, January 6, or the Epiphany of our Lord, was celebrated as “Christmas” before we celebrated December 25, and we still sometimes call it the “Gentile Christmas.” The Epiphany, or “appearing” of the Lord, commemorates the coming of the Magi to the house (not in the stable, as we often see in Nativity scenes!) where Jesus was with His mother and father (Matthew 2:1-12). The importance of this date is that the Magi were the first Gentiles, or non-Jews, to bow in reverence before the young Jesus. Jesus is the Savior of all the nations, even us! In some parts of the Church, Epiphany is still more significant than Christmas—which might not be a bad practice to recover, considering what Christmas has become for many people.