Friday, December 30, 2011

January 1, The Holy Name, and the Circumcision of Jesus

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

Did you know that New Year’s Day was not always January 1? It used to be March 25. The first day of the year has varied in different times and places, but in the British colony of New York, as late as 1751, the new year was reckoned to start on March 25. But our congregation held worship on January 1 anyway, and it was not for New Years. It was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.

Now this may strike you as an awkward thing to celebrate. The awkwardness of it is partly why the ecumenical church prefers to call it the Feast of the Holy Name, which is the title in our lectionary. And after all, the gospel lesson does report the announcement of his name. But in Biblical terms, the circumcision is more important than the naming. Just ask any Jew.

You know that Jewish boys are required to be circumcised eight days after they’re born. The ritual is called a bris. After the bris the family has a party, which traditionally had been a feast for the whole community. Circumcision was a cause for joy. But Christians find the whole idea a bit embarrassing and even controversial, especially because of its medical implications and how it pains a little child. The circumcision of girls is a matter of human rights and sexual oppression. At least the Bible never allows for female circumcision. It’s only for males, and that means that it’s another of God’s judgments on masculinity.

Circumcision is the mark which means a Jew belongs to God. It is the sign that he is not his own. He is branded as God’s property, and so are all his offspring, as you can interpret by the location of the sign upon his body. The sign is both a judgment and a promise.

In Genesis 17, God required Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household as the sign of the covenant God made with him. Four hundred years later, in Exodus 12, at the first Passover, when God renewed the covenant with the whole people of Israel, circumcision was confirmed as the mark of Jewish identity. It has often been a costly mark. In 168 BC, the Seleucid emperor who was ruling over Palestine wanted to force the Jews to live like Greeks, and he made circumcision illegal at the pain of death. That led to the revolt of the Maccabees, and the affirmation of circumcision as a badge worth dying for. It has always cost a lot to be a Jew. To be an heir to the covenant with God is both a blessing and a burden, though the burden is worth it.

And so our Lord was circumcised — to be fully a Jew, to be one with his people, to bear the costs they have to bear, and to be an heir to the covenant and its obligations. So were his twelve disciples, and all the first Christians. But what about the Gentiles who started to convert? Should they be circumcised? The early church debated this, as you can read about in the Book of Acts and in Galatians, from which our second lesson comes. Some voices argued that the inclusiveness of the gospel should not change the obligations of the covenant. They felt that to be a Christian you also had to be more or less a Jew. The debate was settled when the council of the apostles unanimously agreed that Christians can be equally Jewish or Gentile and remain that way, and that circumcision is indifferent, neither required nor prohibited, and simply a personal choice.

The Circumcision of Jesus was not celebrated as a Christian feast until the Sixth Century. It took a two-step process to establish it. First, in the Fourth Century, the church was officially established in the Roman Empire. Soon the 25th of December was quite arbitrarily chosen as the legal holiday to celebrate the nativity. Eight days later is January 1, which began to be observed, and then that was also made a legal holiday. But the establishment of the church also resulted in in evolving anti-Semitism, and over the succeeding centuries the Jewishness of Jesus began to be devalued. The Roman Church began to emphasize the naming of Jesus over his circumcision, and the title got changed to the Feast of the Holy Name.

Ultimately, in 1442, the practice of circumcision was officially prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church and made a mortal sin. This automatically condemned every Jew in Europe to hell, and the Biblical badge was made a cause of fear and shame and a mark of discrimination and anti-Semitic cruelty.

The Reformation made a change in this. The Reformed Church reaffirmed the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewishness of the Bible, and it reaffirmed the celebration of the Circumcision of our Lord. And the Dutch Reformed Church celebrated it here in America for many years. When our congregation stopped it, I don’t know, we don’t have the records. Did we get embarrassed? Were we getting too refined? When did we start using our religion to avoid the things of fear and shame instead of using it to face them? Jesus did not avoid the suffering of his people or their oppression by the Romans. He was crucified because he was a Jew. He was mocked by the Roman soldiers because he was a Jew. He would have been discriminated against by many Christians throughout history, and in America as well. He would have been murdered in the Holocaust.

What we mark today is that for our salvation, God became a Jew. On Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation, we mark that God became a human being, and today we mark that God became a Jew. As Galatians puts it, “born of a woman, born under the law.” The Jewishness of Jesus is not incidental. But his Jewishness is not just a matter of ethnicity. He already had that at his birth, just by having a Jewish mother. His Jewishness was a matter of Jewish faith and observance, and that is what began for him at his circumcision.

So what does this all mean for us today? Well, I'm not sure. It’s an open question for me, and I’m not sure what it all means. But it must affect the way that we imagine God. Look, if we say that Our Lord Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead, in the flesh, and then that he ascended into heaven at the right hand of his Father, whatever that means, it does mean that there is a Jew at the right hand of his Father. I believe that that requires us Christians to have a special honor for Jews and for Judaism.

Not that we should avoid our differences and disagreements. For example, ironically, Jews do not believe that one of them is a member of the Holy Trinity and we do. To worship the Triune God paradoxically requires us to embrace the Judaism of Jesus. Not that we become Jewish ourselves. He was circumcised for us, not us for him. But to honor God, we need to honor God’s real history in the world, God’s commitments and God’s covenants and God’s associations. We Christians are adopted into a way of life with God which Jews are born into. We are in this not from birthright but from grace. And that must affect our view of ourselves as much as it affects our view of God.

Second, we have to embrace the suffering of Jesus for the sake of our salvation. He began to pay the cost for us already on the eighth day of his life. We embrace more than his teaching and example. To learn the Christian faith we need to learn the costs he had to bear and why had to bear them. And because Jesus is God incarnate, that means that God was circumcised, and that God’s own self was bearing that cost. Can you imagine God this way. Not just the child, not just Jesus, but God in heaven, God accepting the mark of commitment and the badge of discrimination upon God’s self. God taking our bleeding and our shame and fear into God’s own self. This is the God we can love, a God who can feel how much it costs to love, and a God who knows how much it costs us to love God back. It is a cost worth paying, it is blood worth giving, it is a name worth wearing, an adoption worth accepting, and a blessing worth receiving.

Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Eve 2011: God's Latest Masterpiece

Hans Memling's Nativity

The following homily is not based on any one scripture text. The Christmas Eve homily at Old First comes very early in the service, and is always a general welcome and introduction to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols which follows it.

 Good evening, and welcome, I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever your belief or unbelief, we’re glad you came to celebrate with us the Incarnation of Our Lord.

This is the first time, I think, that we at Old First have celebrated Christmas Eve with the use of a harpsichord. There it is, up there in the balcony, and Aleeza will be using it to accompany our singing as well as to accompany all her musicians and soloists which she has gathered for tonight. This not the first time, however, that we have celebrated Christmas here in this Upper Hall. We did it back in 1890 and 1891 when we were using this space as our church because the main sanctuary was still under construction.

We are sorry that we cannot offer you this service in our glorious sanctuary. We cannot offer you the majesty of the organ or the magic of the chandelier. You cannot enjoy the glimmer of the candlelight in the lofty vaulting of the ceiling. Because that ceiling is not safe. The engineers tell us that all the plaster ribs in the ceiling are loosening and compromised. It isn’t from water damage — it’s a structural problem of the original design, which has recently begun to fail.

So thank you for climbing those stairs. We are meeting up here because there is no room for you all in the Lower Hall. Yesterday a group of volunteers had to go up and down those stairs for hours in order to bring in everything and make this humble place a worthy church, and I thank them. And last night, I was the last one here, doing final odds and ends, and in the quiet I looked around at what they had done, and I saw that it was good, that it was very good.

Soon you will listen to the nine lessons which trace the tale of our salvation, from Adam and Eve to faithful Abraham to the prophets of Israel to the angels and shepherds to the climax of the Incarnation. The great mystery of the Incarnation is that the Lord God, the creator of the universe, took on human life and human flesh, without thereby becoming any less God or any less human.

Why would God do such a thing, why did God become incarnate? “For us and for our salvation,” says the Creed. It was for salvation that they named Jesus, which means “savior”, for he is born to save us from our sin. The Incarnation is not because God is so impressed with us and wants to be one of us; it’s because we’re sinners who need salvation. And so the wood of the manger foreshadows the wood of the cross, and the swaddling clothes his funeral shroud, and his virgin birth his resurrection. For us and for our salvation.

But I do think God also did it for God’s own joy — this creative God, this artistic God, this musical God. The Incarnation is God’s Mona Lisa, it is God’s Magic Flute. which God delights in. I will not claim this is God’s single masterpiece, considering the vast expanse of inter-stellar space and the glory of the galaxies and the infinite bounty of the stars.

Who knows what other planets there may be with life, with creatures like us who are spiritual and moral. Who knows what miracles the angels sang upon those planets. Maybe those creatures did not sin, and all of them are Unitarians. Maybe on one planet absolutely everyone is Jewish. (Maybe there’s a planet which is a total swamp and everyone is Dutch Reformed.) But on this one planet God allowed for creatures to rebel and sin in order to require the Incarnation. Which God was waiting for. And after ten billion years, suddenly, like out of nowhere, God said to the angels, “Watch this.”

Like an artist God allowed this planet to evolve, and our history to develop, and this tale to unfold, until the stage was set, and the Romans took their census, and the inn was full, and the stable open, and the shepherds ready on the hillside. The girl gave birth. God pointed to that one angel, and the angel walked in among the shepherds. God cued the chorus of the heavenly host, and they sang, and God’s new opera rang out. The music of glory within humility, the universe into poverty, holiness into squalor, divinity into flesh, and justice kissing peace. Dichotomies are reconciled, colors are conjoined, and sounds are conceived that till now even the angels regarded as impossible. But they loved it and maybe they enjoyed their bucolic audience.

My spirit tells me that God rejoiced in this, that God rejoiced in this new work, and all the stars of heaven sang for joy before the Lord. The Lord God looked on this new masterpiece, and God saw that it was very, very good.

The Incarnation, the Incarnation for God’s pleasure and delight, and God takes special pleasure in sharing it with you as a gift for you and your salvation. So it was good of you to climb those stairs tonight. You were right to come up here to share the joy of God, and to sing for the delight of God, and to know God’s pleasure and God’s love.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.