In the Name...
A fellow is walking down the street in New York City and he notices his watch has stopped. He looks around and sees a shop with all sorts of clocks in the window. So, he goes in and asks about having his watch fixed. "I'm sorry", the shopkeeper says, "I don't repair watches. Actually, I'm a mohel. I do the circumcisions for the synagogues." "Oh. So, what's with the clocks?" the man asks. The shopkeeper replies, "And what would you like me to put in the window?"
This is a very strange day. No, really. Throughout the year, we observe many feasts celebrating events in Our Lord's life. His Virgin Birth, Baptism and Transfiguration; his Passion, Resurrection and glorious Ascension. All grand events described in grand language, often the subjects of famous works of art and the dedications of parish churches.
Today, however, we are faced with an awkward, even embarrassing feast. For the 1979 Prayer Book, we Episcopalians changed the title of it to Feast of the Holy Name. But, for most of Christian history, and in all our earlier Prayer Books, today has been known by another name - the Feast of the Circumcision.
Ah. Not exactly the subject of a stained glass window. In fact, I can't think of a single "Episcopal Church of the Circumcision." Circumcision Welcomes You. That would pack them in, I'm sure.
So, what on earth were the Early Church Fathers thinking when they chose this of all things to memorialize with the dignity and status of a Major Holy Day?
Well, two things, actually. Two things. They wanted us to remember that Jesus was a real human being and that Jesus was a Jew. That's right. They wanted us to remember that Jesus was a real human being and that Jesus was a Jew.
Let's look at the first. Can you imagine that it was once seriously taught in churches that Jesus was not a real human being? It was. For the first four hundred years of Christian history there was great debate over who and what Jesus really was. We take so much for granted today that we forget we are the heirs of two thousand years of theological debate and definition - some of it violent, all of it messy.
The Bible doesn't explicitly say, for example, if Jesus was a man adopted by God, or if he was a spirit who came to Earth in human form, or if he was both fully human and divine. All three of these were views sincerely held by Early Christians and vigorously discussed. Eventually, after centuries of discernment, the Church, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, was led to define that in Christ there are two natures, human and divine; each retaining its own properties, and together united in one subsistence and in one person. We call this the "hypostatic union."
Now, this may all sound a bit academic, even wafty and esoteric. After all, how does any of this hypostatic stuff help me in a practical way? Does it help me make moral decisions? Does it help my relationship with others? Well, maybe not obviously, but, believe me, there are practical consequences if we get who and what Jesus was wrong. For example, in the year 650, almost all of what is today Iraq was Christian and had been for hundreds of years. By the year 700, almost all of those Christians had accepted a new religion - Islam - without a fight.
What happened? What happened was that the largest denomination of Christians in Iraq was one which did not keep the Feast of the Circumcision.
This denomination, called Nestorian, had rejected the Council of Chalcedon and chose, instead, to teach that while Jesus wore a human body, like a suit of clothes, to fit in to our world, he was not a real human being. The Iraqi Christians believed he was a spiritual being, like an angel.
Well, guess what, the Moslems teach the same thing about Jesus. They too believe he was miraculously born from the Virgin Mary, complete with stars, angels, shepherds, and Wise Men. But, they say, he was not really human. He was a heavenly spirit, like an angel, and Christians have mistakenly worshipped him as divine.
Well, what could the Iraqi Christians say to that? They had already rejected that Jesus was human. It was only a short step to agree that maybe he wasn't really God either. And so, an entire Christian society disappeared overnight.
And the second thing the Feast teaches is that Jesus was a Jew. Excuse me, but was that a question? Isn't that kind of obvious? Why do we need to be reminded of it? Because, what we're really being reminded of is the place of children in the Christian Faith. The place of children. The Feast of the Circumcision reminds us that just as the Old Covenant was for infants, so is the New.
One issue that was around back then, and which is still around today, is what is called "Believer's Baptism", the idea that Baptism can only be administered to an adult who makes a mature, personal choice to follow Jesus. In the U.S., many denominations, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc., practice this to varying degrees. They all basically say that children can't make a mature faith commitment, so, baptizing them is meaningless because they can't be saved until they understand what it is to accept Jesus.
And, it's not just infants and children. I have actually been told, by some ministers of these denominations, that mentally disabled people can't be baptized and can't be saved, either. They can't be part of the New Covenant because they can't understand enough Scripture or theology to "accept Jesus."
Maybe you hadn't heard that before. Shocking, isn't it? But, you know, they're right about that. Infants and the mentally disabled cannot choose to accept the New Covenant. But, a Jewish infant couldn't say whether or not he wanted to accept the Old one, either.
You see, circumcision wasn't about individual choice. It was about being a people, the people of God. Like citizenship. I didn’t choose to become an American. My great-grandparents made that choice for me. Baptism is the Christian equivalent of circumcision. St. Paul is very clear about this in his letters. It's the mark of the covenant, not a passing grade on a Bible exam. It's not about me accepting Jesus but, rather Jesus accepting me. Baptism is the only way we become people of the Covenant and the only individual choice for Christian adults who were baptized as children is whether or not to live in that covenant as we should.
And, that's why we baptize children and the disabled - just as over 95% of the world's Christians do and always have.
The Feast of the Circumcision, then. Not the most widely talked about. Not portrayed in great works of art or the dedication of parishes, but, one which helps us remember just who Jesus was and who we are. A good reflection for any time of year, perhaps, especially today.
So, please join with me now in saying how we should start this year. It's the same way we should start every year…
In the Name....