The Circumcision of Christ


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January 1st 

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed son to be circumcised…
Romans 4:8-14
Luke 2:15-21

Renaissance painting, the English Pastoral and a certain degree of sentiment have combined to make much more of Luke’s shepherds than is justified, thus undermining his main point. At the time of Jesus shepherds were the lowest of the low: they did not own their flocks; they bore the extreme heat of the day and the cold of the night, often on the move because of the extreme scarcity of grass (the Carol, for once, is accurate when it says: “On the lonely mountain steep”); and, worst of all, their occupation condemned them to an almost permanent state of ritual uncleanliness. They were held in a similar degree of contempt as travelling folk today (cf Second Sunday after Easter). It was these social outcasts who were the first to hear the good news and they were the first to worship an infant scarcely better off than they. Of course, they wanted to share the news (and perhaps enjoy the rare experience of being the centre of attention and being bought food and drink) but the public reaction is beautifully poised in the word “wondered”.

Enter Mary, the victim of a Reformation reaction against late Medieval Marian excess (cf The Nativity), for the first time in her own right but with no speaking part. By tradition, Luke is supposed to have known Mary and his sentence: “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (repeated in 2.51) and Simeon’s promise at 2.35a (cf. The Purification) have fixed the character of Mary in spite of contrary evidence, particularly in John (19.26-27) who might be supposed to have known her better. To have so promptly responded to Gabriel and no doubt put up with sceptical jibes about her conception before marriage (“Holy Ghost! Pull the other one!”) must surely have required a certain degree of mental toughness.

Luke’s account of the circumcision itself is cursory (compared, for instance, with that of his cousin John 1:59-79) but its significance is neatly summed up in the collect’s phrase: “obedient to the law for man.” It then turns rather gloomy after briefly praying for the “Circumcision of the spirit” (one of Paul’s favourites) before praying that: “Our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey…”. In spite of some linguistic decorousness it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the author, writing on the theme of circumcision, is specifically thinking about sexual lust. It might be useful in this context to bear in mind that the 16th Century saw a sharp tightening of sexual morality in part because one of the more unfortunate consequences of transatlantic exploration was the export from Europe with devastating effect, of endemically mild diseases such as influenza to the Americas and the import of endemically mild sexually transmitted diseases, notably syphilis which did not wreak the same havoc but certainly shook the culture permanently (in the way, for example, that HIV/AIDS caused panic, though only fleetingly). Given the precariousness of lineage and the vagaries of medicine, the apparently excessive concern with sexual lust over other sins is understandable.

Mercifully, the Collect’s theme is not picked up from Paul who is concerned with one of the central issue of Romans, the relationship between Jewish and gentile Christians. Having received the training it is understandable that his approach is somewhat Pharisaical; he says that because Abraham believed in God before he was circumcised, Abraham is therefore the father of all true believers, whether Jews or gentiles, and not just of the Jews who count him as the father of their race. Time and again Paul makes this point in different ways to try to keep the infant church united, often getting himself into the most painful linguistic contortions. Put simply, the message of Romans, here and elsewhere, is that what counts is the “righteousness of faith” in Jesus and not circumcision under “the law of man”; and, with another quasi legal argument he concludes that if those who simply observe Jewish Law are the true heirs of Abraham, then faith counts for nothing.

Although the Jews were by no means the only people in the Eastern Mediterranean to practice circumcision, they seem to think they were and the whole of their Scripture from Abraham on contains numerous references to the purity of the circumcised and the impurity of the uncircumcised but, like all such grand motifs, it is easy to forget its significance and simply concentrate on the thing itself. The account in Genesis (17.1-14) tells of the founding covenant between God and Abram (re-named Abraham) and contains the arresting phrase: “My covenant in your flesh shall be an everlasting covenant”; every male child was physically bound up in that covenant history literally for life. And for life in another way too because God linked the command of circumcision with the fruitfulness of his people. Directly after the circumcision edict God promises Abraham that his Wife Sarai (re-named Sarah) will have a baby (17.15-16).

The Christian and secular calendars run their separate courses but on this New Year’s Day we might leave the last word with the Shepherds who, when they heard the good news “came in haste”, “made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” and “returned, glorifying and praising god for all the things that they had heard and seen”. We could hardly make better resolutions than to imitate the spontaneity, missionary zeal and gratitude of those humble shepherds.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Jesus was the last in a long line of unlikely babies
  2. What do the Gospels and Acts tell us about Mary?
  3. Is there any significance in the name Our Saviour was given at His circumcision?
  4. What are the similarities and differences between the circumcision and Baptismal covenants?
  5. How have the visual arts affected our reading of Scripture?

Want to read more? Buy Stir Up, O Lord (available in paperback and for all major e-book readers)