Saturday, January 1, 2011

By Blood, Law, and Name

On the Holy Name and Circumcision of Our Lord

Today is the Octave Day of Christmas, and a Feast of Our Lord… the first feast of the civil year, in fact. It commemorates two things in the life of Christ that happened at the same time: his circumcision and his naming. While modern Western people seem to be able to endure any amount of violence and bloodshed depicted in movies and television, we are often strangely squeamish about Jesus being circumcised. Indeed, this discomfort is found just about anytime we hear the word used in readings from Scripture. In part, this is because of the obsessive sexualization of nearly everything in our culture. It also seems to have something to do with a general distaste for anything reminding us of the "earthiness" of our Semitic roots—still a lingering problem for Western Christians, even after the Holocaust.

Historic Christianity—as opposed to today’s marketed, artificial, and fragmented imitations of the faith—did not have such problems. Christ’s circumcision and naming was understood in a variety of ways, all deeply connected to the wholeness of the Gospel.

First of all, the birth and circumcision were seen as distinct parts of the absolute identification of God with humanity in Christ. Jesus was truly born of a human mother, and partook completely of all that is essential for being a human. In his Letter to Epectetus, St. Athanasius (one of the most important early Christian bishops and thinkers) wrote:

[The Incarnation] was not done in outward show only, as some have imagined. This is not so. Our Savior truly became human, and from this has followed the salvation of humanity as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the whole person, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself.

Christ Jesus was born into a real world, with real flesh and real consequences. His circumcision was the natural consequence of being born a male in a Jewish family. The mystery of God the Son submitting to the covenantal law through this rite is profound. The humility and self-abasement involved is both awe-inspiring and even touching.

Another aspect of this day’s significance has to do with the very thing many “moderns” find most unappealing: the shedding of blood. In a world where unnumbered people are killed all the time in hidden as well as public acts of violence, or who suffer grievous injury in order to fuel economic systems largely benefiting people far, far away, those of us in the “post-industrial” societies find the shedding of blood “unacceptable.” This is odd, because in so many ways we sit atop a pyramid of power built and maintained by the shedding of blood. We seem to feel that a denial of this fact somehow distances us from this reality and relieves us from any participation or guilt.

But we are creatures of blood, which the Scriptures know is that essential and precious fluid without which our life cannot continue. The blood shed at the circumcision is, so early in the story, an earnest on the truth that blood is at the center of human life and human wrong, and that only by the offering of the blood of Christ will the need, the logic, to shed yet more blood ever be discredited. In this way, today looks forward to Good Friday and reveals once more the unitive nature of the Liturgical Year, where all things point to the wholeness of the Gospel and God's loving purposes.

Finally, today celebrates the giving of the name Jesus to the Christ-child. Naming gives definition and relationship to people, especially in pre-modern cultures. Jesus’ mystical name—God saves—fulfills the prophetic language of Emmanuel in an active manner. God is not only “with us” in Jesus: God is saving us from the inside.

This is why the very saying of Jesus' name is marked by a reverence among many ancient (and even some contemporary) Christians, who know that words and especially names matter. I remember hearing about a priest who before ordination served in the US Navy during WWII. The officer over him used much profanity in addressing his subordinates and in giving orders—especially by linking the name of Jesus with various obscene words and phrases. This bothered the young naval rating, but he did not know what to do about it for a while: he just continued the practice he had learned in his childhood as a faithful Anglican in the liturgy—he bowed his head each time Jesus’ name was said. Finally one day, when the foul-mouthed officer had just completed swearing a blue streak with many references to Our Lord, he stopped and addressed the young enlisted man: “why do you keep bowing you head when I am talking you?” The thoughtful rating replied: “I am only doing what I was taught to do, and am reverencing the sacred Name of my Lord when it is spoken.” The officer never used Jesus’ Name blasphemously again in his presence. I think about this story and the treasure of speaking Jesus' Name often and with a loving familiarity, especially when I reverence that Name in the liturgy. At what a cost and with what humility that access and familiarity has been given!

And so we come to the end of the Octave of Christmas, though Christmastide will end only on Epiphany Eve. For those of us who know that time is the very fabric of spiritual contemplation, the remaining hours of the 12 Days of Christmas will be spent focusing on the things today highlights: participation, incarnation, sharing, mutuality, mystery.

Yet, we should also ask ourselves this: how much do we truly accept the reality of the Incarnation on a practical level? How much is our acceptance of God’s direct participation in human life, and thus our invitation to participate in the Divine Life, “for show,” as St. Athanasius puts it? Do we consciously look at our life, our bodies, our relationships, the creation around us, the choices we make and the things we possess as holy points of encounter with God—or do we continue to look at the world through the eyes of alienation from God, believing that by buying things, being busy, thinking along rigid ideological lines, or living out of our own isolated brokenness we can find freedom?

When we grapple with these practical facts of our own incarnate existence, calling on God for both courage to see what is truly there and the strength to respond in faith, then does the Incarnation of God in Christ suddenly leap from the page of a book into our own fleshly hearts. Then comes the Christ anew into the world He loved so much that He would enter it, die for it, restore it, and draw it back into the very heart of the Father.

Almighty God, who caused your blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, having been cleansed in body and mind from every sinful desire, we may in all things obey your blessed will; through the same your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Eternal Father, who gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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