Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his years…They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity…They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Those words from Isaiah have long been among my favorite words from Scripture, but when they appeared in the readings for the Daily Office this week, they almost made me weep. They evoke for me such a deep sense of peace, of gentleness, of hopeful promise, that is is hard to hear them in the aftermath of Newtown. The time they speak of seems far away from our own mess — an aspiration rather than a solid foundation of hope.
Monday was the Feast of the Holy Name, formerly known as the Circumcision of Christ. On the eighth day after the birth of a male child, observant Jews like Joseph and Mary bring their son to be circumcised and to be named, and so, if Christ was born on the 25th, he would have been named on January 1st.
Jesus. God with us. In that name is the promise of peace, of plenty, of a world without fear. But, as Isaiah’s words suggest, there is another implication: if God is with us, then we must be with God. When God first spoke with Moses out of the burning bush, God said to Moses, “‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” God introduces Godself not as an aloof being, but as one who can be touched by the suffering of others.
It is not an orthodox interpretation, but I have always thought that was the power of circumcision as a ritual. Beyond its sheer awkwardness, it implies that suffering is part of the way a baby becomes a person marked for God, a person worthy of a name. To be holy is to surrender any hope of being complete in oneself, and to be opened instead to God, to other people, to the world. We who do not practice this ritual nonetheless retain its spiritual core: to be holy is to be responsive, as God responds to us.
Many years ago, around the time that I was baptized, I dreamed that I was attending a meeting (lots of people around an imposing wooden table), when I began to see something strange through the windows of the room. I looked outside, and I saw that the grass was moving, rippling, opening, as all around me the ground gave up its dead. And they rose into the air in pieces — men, women, children, animals — and as they rose they came together again, bone to its bone, flesh to its flesh, until they were whole once more. And we went together through the air to a cove with a perfect beach — white sand, shining water — and as we landed on the sand, a voice shook the air, “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” Then I woke, and I knew that it was somehow true.
Against all reason, there will be a time of wholeness once more. The wounds will be healed; the lost will be found; the hope that had died shall bloom once more. But in order to get there, we will need to surrender every part of our being that impedes our own wholeness and that of other people. We will need to circumcise our hearts, to let go of the false selves we cling to, and to allow ourselves to answer to a new name: One who is with God. Beloved Child. Compassionate One.