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.