Sermon – Live long and prosper: the Vulcan hand Salute and the Naming of Cats


The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

1st January 2023

Llandaff Cathedral

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games.”

Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân. Amen.

A confession:

I have never seen the musical Cats.

It is based, of course on the collection of poems by T.S.Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

I love Eliot’s poems and especially Macavity the Mystery Cat:

“Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square—
But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!”

But my favourite poem in the collection doesn’t get mentioned in the Lloyd-Webber versions, it is the Naming of Cats

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games.”

Today we celebrate the naming of Jesus, more properly the day on which, in accordance with Jewish law he was circumcised and formally given the name Jesus.

Names are significant in each of the readings chosen for today.

In the first reading the people of Israel are on their way from Egypt, they have left slavery behind but not yet reached the promised land. God gives Moses the form of blessing that is to be used by the Jewish people.

It is very beautiful indeed:

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face to shine upon you 

and be gracious to you;

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you 

and give you peace.

Moses is instructed to give this blessing to his brother Aaron, so it is sometimes called the Aaronic blessing. In traditional Judaism the blessing is given in the synagogue by those descended from the temple priesthood and so is called the priestly blessing.

It is said that the Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy was brought up Jewish and he adapted the gesture used by the cohens, the priests to become the vulcan hand salute to accompany the greeting: Live Long and Prosper.

The blessing is the way today’s reading from Numbers tells us that the people of Israel receive the name of the Lord.

In the second reading St Paul, writing to the church in Galatia gives us a simple name for God who we are to call: Abba, Father. And in the Gospel reading we have just heard we are reminded that the name Jesus is given to him by the angel.

For the Hebrew people, and for many ancient peoples, names are hugely significant. Adam’s first act after the creation is to name all living things. 

The name of God is powerful and unpronounceable. Even now Jews when they worship do not pronounce the name of God which is spelled in prayerbooks with the four syllables yod-hey-vav-hey but instead replace it with the Greek word Adonai, Lord.

But we Christians are given a name, we do have a name for God. We have the name that was given by the angel to Mary. 

We have the name Jesus. Jesus who is God really dwelling on earth.

As this new year begins the Vulcan greeting: Live long and prosper, might seem ironic. There is much to be anxious about. There is much for Christians to be anxious about and for the church to be anxious about.

There is much we can do, of course, but the best cure for anxiety is not action but stillness. We are called to be a holy people. Each one of us is called to holiness.

The way of prayer that has stuck with me best over all my adult life is a prayer of the holy name of Jesus. Often just called the Jesus Prayer. It is a form of prayer that has its origins among eastern orthodox Christians. In its simplest form it involves simply repeating two phrases:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.

Like many people who pray this prayer I carry a rope, a series of knots made out of wool. I slip my fingers around each know and pray the prayer. The combination of this simple action and the words that accompany it is powerful. Sometimes when I am most anxious or utterly exhausted just slipping my fingers over the knots is enough and the prayer prays itself.

The trick is to repeat this prayer over and over again, hundreds, thousands of times:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.

Repeat it over and over again. Sometimes, if you can and especially when you start, do it out loud.

But also learn to repeat it in your head; attach one phrase to your in-breath and the other to the out-breath.

Breathing in:         Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.

Breathing out:       Have mercy on me.

If you do this for long enough, often enough the prayer will sink deep into your heart. 

You will find that it becomes a part of you; a part of your breathing. 

You will find yourself breathing this prayer as you go to sleep and as you wake up. It will be in your footsteps on the way to work or as you do the hoovering or cut the grass. 

This prayer has sustained me as I have sat with people as they die; in moments of the greatest stress in my life; when I have felt most alone and in darkest despair.

It is not magic. The name of Jesus is powerful because of our faith in it. It is uttering the name of Jesus in faith that brings us comfort and knowledge of the sacred presence.

When I was brought up I was taught to bow my head at the sacred name. It is a wonderful custom that I would encourage among us. To recognise that when we speak this sacred name we are invoking the presence of the one who saves us, who has saved us.

“How sweet the name of Jesus sounds, in a believer’s ear” the old hymn says.

We are the temples of the spirit; we are the places of which God says 

“My name shall be there”. 

“Will God really dwell on earth?” prayed Solomon when he dedicated his Temple.

Does God really dwell in this beautiful cathedral, here along the banks of the Taff?

Yes, if we carry Jesus with us in our hearts and minds; if we become holy, living temples dedicated to the presence of God.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.

At the end of his poem about the naming of cats T S Eliot writes:

“When you notice a cat in profound meditation,

The reason, I tell you, is always the same:

His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:

His ineffable effable Effanineffable

Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

Dear friends, at this beginning of the year may I offer you the blessing that God gave his people in its original beautiful Hebrew and in English:

יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ

יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ

יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

May this cathedral church be one where God says “My name shall be there.” 

May we be people of the holy Name of Jesus.

May we always be engaged in rapt contemplation of the name of Jesus, of that ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular Name.


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