Thursday, January 01, 2009

Circumcision of Christ January 1st

Romans 4:8-14
Luke 2:15-21

Back in the 1970s, when I was in my first year in college, I had a run-in with a Philosophy instructor. The older I get, the more I read and the more I learn, the more I know how right I was, and how wrong the instructor was. Now, that is not the normal reflection one makes of his first year of college, and not the normal reflection I make of my undergraduate days in the 1970s when I was a mere boy and a beardless youth (a time my own kids think could not have existed. When I tell them I was once their age, I am not sure they believe me).

Anyway, this Instructor told the class that the ancient Greeks had believed that matter was evil (so far she was somewhat right), and that, in her words, “we see this as part of Christian teaching, that matter is evil.” I did not hesitate to contradict her. I spoke right up: “That is not Christian teaching,” I said. And I was right. She said to me, “Defend that statement.” So, I did. I pointed out that as early as the Book of Genesis, God looks at His creation and says, “It is very good.” I mentioned the sacraments, specifically bringing up baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which use matter for what is holy. I was about to point out the most important part, that Christians believe that God Himself has appeared in the world of matter in what we call the Incarnation, the Christian teaching that God the Son is fully God and fully man in one Person. But, she cut me off, and repeated her assertion that Christians have always believed that matter is evil. "As I was saying..." she went on.

Now that I am a real theologian, and a published one at that, I can add that the entire concept of matter being evil was the worst of ancient Gnostic heresies taught by one Marcion, whom the bishop and martyr Saint Polycarp called “the firstborn of Satan.” I am sure that these names were not familiar to the instructor. To this day I am irked by the fact that standards at that college were so low as to make an instructor out of someone so totally unqualified. And yet, if that unfortunate person had not been presenting herself as someone who is educated, we could have a certain amount of sympathy.

After five centuries of division and confusion among Christians, it is all too true that the heart of the message is missing from what most people think we believe. During this season of Christmas, and particularly this eighth day of Christmas, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, it is a good time to state some basics about our faith. In particular, what does it mean that God the Son was born into the world as a human being? And, what does it mean about the use of matter in sacraments and in worship in general? It is right that we can see water, incense, the sound of bells and other created things as useful in worship. Our God made a good world, and created things have been sanctified by Christ taking human nature and coming into the world of matter, of space and of time. Eternity and time have met in one Person. For people who object to water, to incense, to bells and to the Real Presence in the Sacrament, I can only ask what they have against Jesus Christ having come in the flesh.

The fact that we believe such a thing, that we believe “the Word was made flesh,” is rather startling, quite a shock when we really take it in for the first time. I recall vividly when I was very young, attending a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and the Rector of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, a small country church in Maryland, read the opening of the Gospel of Saint John, the appointed Gospel for Christmas. I knew the words already, but as they were read in the context of the Church in that holy service, on that holy night, they hit me like a bolt of lightening. “…the Word was God…And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” A few days later I was walking the family dog, and those words came again. I already believed that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man; but the idea of what that means, once again, was like being struck by lightening. It really is rather a shock, a good shock and happy, to grasp the fact that God the Son has condescended to take our very nature into His eternal and uncreated Person- God equal to the Father and the Holy Ghost.

The very fact that Saint Luke tells us that he was circumcised takes on great significance. Every Jewish boy was circumcised on the eighth day. This is what God commanded Abraham, and what Moses simply continued. But, what does it mean that Jesus Christ was circumcised? What does it tell us about creation and redemption, and God’s love for the human race?

Well, to begin with, as our Collect points out, Jesus Christ would fulfill the Law. For redemption, it reminds us of words from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).” The fact that He fulfilled the Law perfectly, and was Himself without sin is essential to our salvation; the Righteous One being sacrificed as a Lamb without spot, himself pure from all sin, “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (I Pet. 2: 24).” As Isaiah put it, in the 53rd chapter:

“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

The sinless One, like Adam whose sin made the many guilty, has by His obedience unto death as the atoning sacrifice, made the many righteous. In this first shedding of blood by circumcision He begins to obey and to fulfill the whole Law; no one else ever did it perfectly. No one else could. No man in heaven or earth was worthy to open the scroll, says the Book of Revelation, except for the One who was like a Lamb that had been slain, and is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

What else does His circumcision tells us? It tells us that we can identify Him as an individual in history. This is very important, indeed essential, to believing that His Incarnation was real and not allegorical. Back in the 1980s, in New York City, one of the “progressive” Episcopal churches in town decided to display a female corpus- that is, the body of a woman- on a crucifix. One of the great errors of our time is the kind of feminism that wants something other than simply equal respect for both men and women, which is a good thing in itself. But this is, instead, that other kind of feminism, the Satanic kind that hates human nature as God created it, and meant it to be. It is the kind that hates life, that makes the sin of abortion, which is the murder of the unborn, into its only “sacrament.” Like the witch in Narnia, it makes it always Winter but never Christmas. A female corpus on the crucifix gets to the heart of error. Jesus Christ, in His sacrifice is transformed into a mere symbol. How backwards from reality.

God is the greatest Reality of all, and we human beings are the image. Jesus Christ in His human nature is the exact image, the express icon of the Father. His Circumcision reminds us of this reality: namely, that He entered real human history. That is, the world, as it really is, received into its created existence the Lord Himself. He was real, and as an individual had marks that made him of the male sex and of Jewish ethnicity, just as we all have these same distinctions of belonging to one of the two sexes, and to our own specific lineage from our ancestors. His sex was male, his ethnicity was Jewish.

It is important that He was male. This is no “accident” of the Incarnation, but rather, part of the plan. It is important that he was Jewish, descended from the Royal line of David. This too was no mere “accident” of the Incarnation, but an essential part of the plan of His Incarnation. Only a man could be our High Priest and represent all of humanity in One Person- as head. Only a Jew from the line of David could be the eternal King whose government and peace will have no end. 1

And, all of this ties into that other fact of His Circumcision, his Name. “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Jesus, Y’Shua, is a Hebrew name that means Salvation. As it says in the book of Isaiah:

Ci’ Adonai Shoftenu

Adonai Makkakenu

Adonai Malkenu

Hu Yashi-enu

“For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He is our salvation (Isaiah 33:22).”

Consider the two comings of Jesus Christ as they are revealed through shadows of history in the Old Testament: His first coming as Priest and His second when He will come as King. For today, let us consider the meaning of His circumcision, the first shedding of His blood, and His particular history as a male of the house of David, of the tribe of Judah. This real man in real history has overcome the barriers between us and God. By taking human nature He has overcome the chasm between Creator and creature that separated us from God. As the Lamb of God Who took away the sins of the world in his atoning death, when he offered himself on the cross as the full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, he removed the separation between us as sinners and the Holy God. When He rose from the dead He did away with death that separated us from the Living God, the source and author of all life.

His Name is Jesus. He is our salvation.

1. Isaiah 9:6,7. These two verses reveal a male of Davidic family descent as absolutely necessary attributes of Messiah.


poetreader said...

One of your best! Simple and accessible, strong, and deep. I wish I'd said that! In time, and not as well, I'm sure I shall.


Millo Shaw said...

In fairness to the ancient Greeks, it was primarily in their philosophical tradition, originating with the Ionian pre-Socratics, that the negative view of "matter" gained currency. The Greek religious tradition remained highly incarnational, as any reading of the great Greek religious poets, such as Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and even Euripides, or any study of the great Greek religious cults, such as those of Delphi and Olympia, will attest. Although polytheistic, the ancient Greek religious view of the world was much more consonant with the Biblical outlook than was the Greek philosophical tradition - and, frankly, the whole of the western philosophical tradition (which is, after all, only footnotes to Plato and Aristotle!) since then. Jerusalem has much more to do with Delphi and Olympia than Athens! Thus Jesus was not only the fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures, but his story meets all the essential requirements of the Greek heroic myth as well.

Of course the Greek philosophical tradition has provided many boons to western civilization (our intellectual history is inconceivable apart from it), but I would argue that it has inflicted great evils as well: the two chief being the mind-body dichotomy arising from the view that man's essential identity is that of his mind, his body being merely extraneous garbage, or at least irrelevant, and atomism, the view that the ultimate reality is the part, the whole being merely an illusion (the oriental view of reality tends to go the opposite extreme, regarding the whole as reality and the part as illusion). By contrast, the ancient Greek poets (especially Homer) and the Bible present an integrated view of reality. The ultimate reality is both the part and the whole – as a reflection of the very nature of the Holy Trinity.

I suspect (I cannot prove) that the Protestant reformers were deeply influenced by the revival of the Greek philosophical tradition in the Renaissance - a revival that found, perhaps, its ultimate expression in the Cartesian "cogito ergo sum" (I know that Descartes was RC, but I suspect that he was swimming very much in the same intellectual sea as Calvin et al.); hence their tendency effectively to disregard the actual incarnational history of the living Church and emphasize the Mind engaging with the Text (a Text ripped out of its ecclesiastical and liturgical contexts) as the essential core of Christianity; and hence their reduction of the sacraments and much of the contents of the Creeds (e.g. the Communion of Saints) to mere legalisms bearing only abstract significance. Catholic churches, and the traditional Catholic liturgies (as opposed to the current "Vatican Rag") allow you to worship with your whole person. I remember a wonderful experience I had just walking into a medieval Norman church many years ago: radiating out on either side of the nave were chapels honouring various saints. As I walked down the nave I had the sense that I was drawing both physically and spiritually, i.e. with my whole person, closer to God and actually entering the Communion of Saints! I have had similar experiences in eastern Orthodox churches with their iconostaseis. My experience of Protestant churches is that they're good places to think and read - but then so are offices, libraries, and washrooms.

Brian G. said...

This is a sermon that many of our evangelical brethren need to hear. Crypto-Marcionite thinking is alive and well in many quarters. But I suppose that it only makes sense that once you lose the centrality of the sacraments, then faith can easily collapse into an escape hatch from the world by route of the "sinner's prayer." In churches with this attitude one also sees a downplaying of the doctrine of the general resurrection; the unstated goal of Christianity then is liberation from the world to a purely spiritual heaven.

These attitudes were among the factors that finally drove me from Presbyterianism. Now I don't have any problem with "the five points" (even as I pray the Salve Regina), but the rabid Calvinist obsession with election collapses all too easily into a generalized dualism.

Anonymous said...

"I remember a wonderful experience I had ...I had the sense that I was drawing both physically and spiritually, i.e. with my whole person, ....I have had similar experiences in eastern Orthodox churches .... My experience of Protestant churches is that ...."

Pure subjectivism. There is no there there.


poetreader said...

Millo Shaw's 'subjective' observations come in the context of a reasoned argument from principle. In this context, there appears to be very much a 'there' there, the subjective being used as an illustration of what results from the objective reality of the philosophical and theological basis. I very much like his statement.

Now, when, as so often happens, these subjective impressions become the basis of an argument, there certainly is a problem. One finds that being done in the promotion of such things as female 'ordination' and the gay agenda. That is putting the cart before the horse.

However, I can also say that an objective theology/philosophy that seldom or never has subjective results is not worth very much. The incarnation, after all, is the Divine coming into the human life in a tangible way, affecting the whole man, including emotional feeling, in a real and observable way.


Anonymous said...


If this is "a reasoned argument," then it is an exceedingly poor one.

(1) The writer does not understand the chasmic gap between Biblical revelation and pagan myths. See the Epistle for the Feast of the Transfiguration, from II Peter, which spells out the distinction between "cunningly devised fables" and God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. I can cite more than one text in which the NT condemns silly mythology.

(2) Give some thought to his final salvo in which he snidely compares Protestants churches (where the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation are taught, Jesus is proclaimed as Lord and Saviour, and souls are saved) to "washrooms." Is this your concept of a "reasoned argument"?

(3) I am still shocked by his observation that "Protestant Reformers were deeply influenced by a revival of the Greek philosophical tradition. Did you and he know about Augustine's Platonism? Have you heard about Aquinas's delight in Aristotle? Is Luther's condemnation of Aristotle meaningless? Calvin was philosopically literate, but this was hardly a new thing. This kept him laergely in the great tradition of mediaeval theology.

I am especially offended by this sentence:

"Thus Jesus was not only the fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures, but his story meets all the essential requirements of the Greek heroic myth as well."

If this was the case, then how would you and he account for the OT prophetic tradition which rejected Baal worship? If this is the case, why is Baal worship wrong?

And I repeat, there is "no there there" in an argument which winds up wallowing in self-preoccupation.


Fr. Robert Hart said...

Writers such as C.S. Lewis have seen classical mythic Paganism in a different light from the more barbaric sort. In The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton wrote about how good it was for the future of civilization, and the eventual spread of Christianity, that Rome defeated Carthage (and Carthage was where the worship of Baal became such a threat to the whole world).

However, even though a revival of Greek philosophy was a big deal in the Renaissance period, I cannot see it as a major influence on the various Reformers. When they quote from Antiquity it is usually the Latin Fathers or the Bible (later the English Reformers would rediscover the Greek Fathers). We see many quotations from St. John Chrysostom in the writings of Calvin, but even that was from a very corrupt Latin text.

Anonymous said...

Christian writers even from Patristic times (long before CSL) have found passages in Plato and Vergil which foreshadow the advent of the Messiah. The doctrine of Common Grace allows us to say that at certain points (fairly isolated points at that) pagan antiquity transcended itself. But this is a far cry from saying that Christ fulfilled both OT revelation and classical myths in the same way. The latter (which seems to be what Millo is claiming) simply opens the way for making Christianity and other world religions equally valid ways of salvation.

btw, Fr Hart, it was an excellent sermon. Thanks for the reminder of the Trinitarian reference in the threefold repetition of the word Theos in John 1.

William Tighe said...

I think that I will refrain from comment here, but I will refer you to a very good book (by an author about whom, as a Evangelical Anglican who supports WO and whose wife is a priestess, and whose latest book, *Christianity's Dangerous Idea* [2007] supports the unfettered right of the individual to interpret the Bible on his own, I have deep misgivings): *The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation* by Alister McGrath (1987, 1993, 2005).

There is a cheap copy (and others less cheap) available on, so act fast ...

It really is a very good book, especially where it discusses the very different intellectual milieux out of which Lutheranism, on the one hand, and Reformed Christianity, on the other, emerged.