Cuts Like a Knife: The Scandal of Christ’s Circumcision

January 5, 2015

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Last week on January 1 we celebrated the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. But traditionally, that day was also celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. I am no expert in the history of the Church’s liturgical practices, but it seems that this designation was changed by Pope Paul VI to that of the Solemnity of the Mother of God, with what I perceive to be an ancillary emphasis on a world day of peace. Despite the shift in emphasis from the Circumcision of Christ to the Mother of God, the Gospel the Church assigns for January 1 mentions that the Lord Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth. January 1 is also New Years Day, and my guess is that the conflation of so many different elements has led to the circumcision of Christ becoming more obscure. Perhaps, the multiple concerns of the day have enabled sensitive folks to think about something other than circumcision (Christ’s or anyone’s else’s) if they want.

This may be one of those instances, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, that whatever we might have gained in sensitivity we have lost in vision.

The Scriptures insist repeatedly that it is through circumcision that one is set apart as a true Israelite. In fact, there is a rather ominous reference in the fourth chapter of the Book of Exodus in which Moses suffers violent consequences for the failure to have his son circumcised and it is only his wife’s quick action and poor son’s blood that saves the prophet from the full force of God’s wrath. Saint Paul had a lot of say about the practice, as the scholar Daniel Boyarin demonstrated a few years back in his book A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Boyarin’s thesis is that for St. Paul, circumcision was essentially spiritualized in Christ, so no longer physically necessary. The apostle believed the essential identity of an Israelite now had its reference point in the Lord Jesus rather than practices such as dietary law, or in this case, circumcision.

Circumcision was not obscure for the early Church — it was an unavoidable issue, as folks like Saint Paul were advancing the idea that there just might be a way into the new kind of Israel that did not require the practice at all. Gentiles likely found this appealing, while Jews found Saint Paul’s spiritualizing of the practice to be deeply disconcerting. I can understand their point. There are probably few ways of discerning whether or not someone is really serious about conversion than insisting that a man submit the most sensitive region of his body to a sharpened blade (not only trusting a stranger wielding the knife, but also the risk of infection, or worse, hearing the stranger during the ritual utter “oops”). After circumcision, most of the practices of the Mosaic Law might seem relatively easy.

Remember, the practice of circumcision as it was encoded in the Law of Israel had divine sanction. Whatever the primitive origins might have been, it was and still is accepted by Israelites as something the Lord requires of his people, and it is clear from the testimony of the Gospel that it was a practice that the Lord did not deem himself to be exempt. Christ being God, it seems that his acceptance of the practice is a great example of not asking someone to do something that you yourself are not willing to do. But it also seems from the apostolic testimony that the new Israel that Christ the Lord would constitute would have a different (and much less physically invasive) means of imparting identity.

There are ample representations of Christ’s circumcision in art, and though we might blush and wince from the mere mention of the procedure, the faithful in ages past were less inclined to look away. The cult of the relic of Christ’s alleged foreskin was the occasion for pilgrimage with rival claimants to the real thing vying for the attention of the crowds and the Church’s approbation. It was a cultural icon with enough traction behind it to warrant Voltaire’s sneer, and as Modernity advanced, for many in the Church, the foreskin relics and their cults became a source of embarrassment. I think that the last one of these alleged relics was kept on display until the early 1980’s. The bejeweled reliquary and its relic have since disappeared. Novelist Chuck Palahniuk concocted an irreverent, fictional tale of someone cloned from the alleged DNA of Christ’s foreskin. I kid you not. More evidence that nothing is sacred. (I never read the book, as I was disappointed that it wasn’t a sequel to “Fight Club.”)

Alleged relics aside, the Circumcision of Christ is actually an event of great theological and spiritual importance, and it is a profound loss that it has been relegated to the obscure. It really is an in-your-face assertion of the scandal of Christ’s particularity. The central claim of the Church’s Faith is that God in Christ accepts human nature and lives a real, human life. Born into our world, God accepts a particular family and culture as his own. In the mysteries of his Providence, he chooses Israel even before he lays down the foundations of the world. William Howard Ewer’s cryptic remark, “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” comes to mind. By citing this remark, I do not mean to offend, but to offer that the Incarnation is deeply mysterious and inextricably bound forever to Israel. God’s identification with Israel is literally cut into the body of his human nature within days of his birth. We now know that it would have gone even deeper than the wound of his circumcision and would have penetrated to the cellular level. The glorified body of the Lord is that of an Israelite. The Church does not give in to Marcionism in any age of her life. God in Christ doesn’t give up on Israel, he becomes an Israelite, and in doing so, creates a new kind of Israel that can include the whole of humanity.

I also think that commemorating the Circumcision of Christ is also the antidote to the lingering temptation to Docetism. God’s humanity in Christ is not an abstraction or merely a symbol. It is real. The baby bleeds red, human blood. The man would bleed too. Not only that, but the bleeding baby is a real baby, not some kind of heavenly simulation. We might prefer to keep the Holy Child covered up, but he is a real boy who will grow into a real man. Some insist that it is a scandal that God does this to himself. Others insist that it is impossible. The Church insists, despite any objections, that this is in actual fact what God has done.

Pius Parsch notes that the Circumcision of the Lord is remembered by the Church as the first sacrifice of blood that flows in redemption. There is scandal in this statement as well. We live in a culture that feigns that it can have love without sacrifice, and narrows its vision of love to accommodate this prejudice. It is in the cramped confines of this narrow vision that the risk of true love is diminished, as well as its power to redeem. The Incarnation is essentially an act of love, and though we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there is no real love in this world without a sacrifice of some sort. The Circumcision of Christ is the foreshadowing of the greater sacrifice that will inevitably come. The greater the love, the greater the potential for suffering — and the love of God in Christ is the greatest love of all.