Saturday, December 30, 2006

Circumcision—the TWO of Jesus

January l is the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus Christ. Let us note these two texts:

At the end of eight days, when Mary’s Son was circumcised, he was called Jesus. (Luke 2:21).

The circumcision of Jesus, the Christ, on the Cross at Calvary (Colossians 2:11).

As an infant, Jewish boy, Jesus (through the action of his parents) obeyed the command of the God of Moses and was circumcised. By this act he began his submission to the Law of God, which he would keep until he hung on the Cross thirty years later. Also by this act, he shed the first drop of his blood as the second Adam, the Representative of Man, and Jewish Messiah, for the human race; thirty years later on the Cross he would truly shed his blood to establish the new covenant, the saving relation between God and man.

The circumcision of Jesus when a week old was of course both physical and symbolical. The cutting off, the shedding of the foreskin of the male, is in Genesis 17 the sign and seal required by God of Abraham and his descendants which points first to the covenant which God in his sovereign mercy had made with Abraham and secondly, and derivatively, to the human response to God, required by the covenant. Only the male is involved because he is considered to be the head of the family and thus the women of his family are covenant members because of their relation to him.

The apostle Paul, himself circumcised as a Jew, had long pondered the theological meaning and purpose of circumcision—as his frequent references to it in his Epistles shows. In Colossians 2:10-15 we find the result of profound meditation upon the relation of circumcision to Christ, his Cross, the Church, Baptism and salvation from sin. In this paragraph, Paul describes Jesus as undergoing or experiencing a unique form of circumcision, performed by God his Father on the Cross at Calvary. Of Jesus Paul writes: “he disarmed/stripped off (Gk—apekdusamenos) the principalities and powers…” (v.15). This cutting off or stripping off is not of the foreskin for that has already gone! Rather it is, through the act of offering up his weak, human body in physical death, the stripping off and the divesting himself of the spiritual, demonic powers of evil with which he had been at war and which were clinging to him, thinking that, in this final battle to death, they were the victors. However, says Paul, at the very moment when they seemed to have totally triumphed, they are cast off by Jesus and made into captives and conquered rebels, as he is raised from the dead triumphant over them. This is cosmic circumcision undergone on the hill, Golgotha, outside the city walls of Jerusalem. As a result the evil powers become subservient to the victorious Lord, who is raised from the dead in his new glorious body and crowned King of kings.

Paul also tells the baptized believers in the Colossian church that they also have been circumcised through their union (by faith and with the Holy Spirit) with the circumcised Christ on the Cross. In union with him, they participate in his circumcision and his victory over evil powers, and this is what was declared in word, symbol and spiritual power in their Baptism. That is, they experienced “a circumcision made without hands,” a work of God the Holy Spirit, in and upon their souls/hearts.

We may claim that it is only because of the TWO CIRCUMCISIONS of Jesus the Messiah and Saviour that from the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) both female and male persons who receive the Gospel (or who are the infant children of those who have received the Gospel) are provided with “ a circumcision made without hands” in the covenant of grace, sealed by Christ’s atoning blood. The outward and visible form and expression of this divine circumcision of the soul/heart (=regeneration) is water Baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

In the Anglican Prayer for the Feast of the Circumcision, we pray for the full reality of this internal, divine circumcision to be realized within and through us as baptized Christians.

JANUARY lst. The Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus
A meditation from Peter Toon

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that our hearts and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 1662/1928)

Few Episcopalian churchgoers today are familiar with the Feast of our Lord on January 1st as “The Feast of the Circumcision” because it is now called “The Feast of the Holy Name.” However, whilst there is tremendous symbolic meaning in the Name of Jesus (Joshua, “the Lord our salvation”) on which we all ought to meditate, there is also deep symbolic meaning in the fact that the infant, who was called Jesus was also circumcised because, put simply, he was a Jewish boy, not a girl, and born within the Mosaic covenant of grace. On this also we ought to meditate!

It is rather odd, we may think, that in a time and culture where there is much explicit “sex”, that the Church should cease to refer directly and publicly to the day when Jesus was circumcised! At least in liberal progressive contexts, this cessation is empowered by the idea that Jesus is androgynous and thus specific talk of circumcision is not in order—but more of this below.

From the middle of the sixth century until the 1960s the Feast was known in the West as “The Feast of the Circumcision.” Only in the last forty years has its name has been changed by both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Churches either to emphasize the Name of the Son of God or the role of his blessed Mother. However, there are excellent reasons for retaining the traditional Name and meaning of the Feast.

Circumcision was the entrance into the Covenant of the Law, the Mosaic Covenant, and the person receiving it involved himself in every other obligation of the Law of Moses – as St Paul wrote, “every man who is circumcised is a debtor to keep the whole Law (Gal 5:3) In the institution of circumcision God told Abraham, “He that is eight days old shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:12). For the Jew nothing was perfect until seven days had passed from the moment of its production and the eighth day had arrived – because the creation of the world with its ensuing rest took 7 days (Genesis 1)!

The Law was obeyed with respect to Jesus. “When eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus (Luke 2:21).

For Christians there is a profound reason why the Feast of the Circumcision should be eight days after the Feast of Christmas. St Paul wrote in Galatians 4:4: “God sent forth his Son made of a woman” [Christmas] and then he added, “made under the Law” [here is the Circumcision, the act by which Jesus first became involved in legal obligation as a Jew, the Son of David]. His whole life henceforth was in obedience both to the Law of Moses and to the higher will of his Father in heaven. So it is not a surprise to find that in the pleadings of the Litany, the Birth and the Circumcision are united as the Lord Jesus is addressed: “By thy holy Nativity and Circumcision… Good Lord, deliver us.”

And on the Feast of the Circumcision, as we read or hear the opening of the traditional Anglican Collect: “Almighty God [the Father], who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man….,” we recall and state before God not only the fact of the circumcision of Jesus but also that his circumcision, with its commitment to the obeying of the whole law of God, was done also for man, for the human race, and thus for us. It was done for man, male and female, because Jesus is “The Lord our salvation” and “Immanuel, God with us.” He is the Incarnate Son of the Father, who has taken to himself from his Blessed Mother Mary our human nature in its male form so as to be our Savior from within human nature.

It was common and good in the past—though neglected today— to speak of Jesus, in his vocation as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the whole world, as being involved in two necessary aspects of obedience to God his Father through the Law. One is active obedience, his daily commitment to obey God through the law in thought, word and action; and this he did willingly and wholly to the moment that he expired on the Cross. The other is passive obedience (from pascho, to suffer), his passion, his suffering as the innocent for the guilty, as bearing the pain and punishment as the substitute and representative on behalf of his people (see Isaiah 52: 13 – 53: 12). Both these important aspects are signified in the act of circumcision; for here the first shedding of his precious blood points to his passive obedience in the shedding of the blood of Atonement at the Cross of Calvary, thirty or so years later at the close of his Messianic ministry.

One further point is worthy of noting and considering with respect to the bloody circumcision of Jesus, son of Mary and Incarnate Son of God the Father. And it is a point that is very relevant in the contemporary, liberal progressive Episcopal (Anglican) Church. What the circumcision makes abundantly clear is that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity assumed not human nature in the abstract, but human nature as male, for he became Man, not an androgynous human person. This seems to be offensive to some of strong feminist commitments. They prefer to speak of the Child of God and suggest this Child was androgynous.

Further, in these egalitarian days, it is asked: how can a male man represent female persons, for male and female are two different and distinct forms of humanity? The biblical answer, which again is offensive to or difficult for some modern people, is found in the doctrine of creation: “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1: 27). In creation there is an order that is from God. In this order man is both male and female, man and woman, husband and wife. However, the male is first in order and the woman is second. They have equal dignity and honor before God; but, one, the woman, by God’s appointment is second in order (not inferior) to the other. This is conveyed in speech by the word man in ancient and modern languages, including Hebrew, having the meaning of “man, woman and children.” And in doctrine it is said that the woman is included in the man, so that Jesus the Man is not only the representative of male men like himself but also of female women like his blessed Mother and all children. Symbolically this is portrayed in Genesis 3 by the creation of the female woman out of man, who is thus “bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh” (3:21-24).

If the eternal Word (Logos) and Son of God had become human either as androgynous or female, it/she could not (by the very design of God in creation!) have become and been the Savior of mankind (males & females). Only the male man is by God’s ordering able to represent both male and female persons and thus the Word of the Father became man, male man. He was circumcised for us all because by that act he committed himself to doing what was good and necessary for the salvation of mankind, Jewish and Gentile men and women!

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that our hearts and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 1662/1928)

In response to his Circumcision (and all that it implies), as the BCP Collect prays, we (male and female members of the new covenant created by the shed blood of Jesus) ask God to circumcise our hearts and all our faculties, to cut away from them all sinfulness and to cause them to be sanctified, so that we may gladly do his will. This is surely an excellent prayer with which to begin the New (secular) Year on January 1, 2007.

December 30, 2006

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)

No comments: