Wednesday, January 01, 2014
The Circumcision of Christ
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. 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 (Gen. 1:31).” I mentioned the sacraments which use matter that becomes holy, specifically bringing up baptism and the Lord’s Supper. 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. “And the Word was made flesh…(John 1:14).” But, she cut me off, and repeated her assertion that Christians have always believed that matter is evil.
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. It is a shame that the standards at that college were so low as to make an instructor out of someone so totally unqualified. The punch line is, she also taught “Comparative Religions.” Not every punch line is funny, and that one is tragic.
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 (I John 4:1f).
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 made very man.
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 sacrificed as the 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 human being 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 tell 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. Jesus Christ, in His sacrifice is transformed into a mere symbol instead of a real person in history. He becomes an allegory and metaphor. This denies the Incarnation (I John 4:1f).
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 God 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 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 Israelite. That is because He was not an allegory or metaphor, but a real human being in history.
It is important that He was male. This is no “accident” of the Incarnation, but rather, part of the plan as the prophets foretold it. It is important that He was Jewish, of the tribe of Judah and 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. As a man He is our High Priest and represents 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 Shof’tenu
“For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; He is our salvation (Isaiah 33:22).”
We need to understand the two comings of Jesus Christ as they are revealed 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 that Messiah would be a male of David’s line.