... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Christmas 1 Year B, Message Jan 01st, 2012

Circumcision of Our Lord

Text: Luke

One of the Holy days in the liturgical year is the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, or more commonly called the Naming of Jesus. Its day of celebration is January 1st, New Year’s Day and the Octave Day of Christmas. Unfortunately it has been left out of most commentaries that are based on the Revised Common Lectionary. Perhaps, in part, this is due to the rarity of Christmas actually falling on a Sunday and secondarily on the relative lack of importance our culture has put on circumcision. In fact, now-a-days, circumcision is frowned upon and there is even a movement afoot to ban the procedure, declaring it a form of abuse and torture. Yet its significance cannot be denied especially in Jewish tradition.

The feast of circumcision was considered of so great an importance that it could be done even on the Sabbath – and in Jewish custom not much was permitted for the Sabbath. The high import of the ritual harkened back to the covenant made between God and Abraham when Isaac was redeemed by God from being sacrificed and a ram provided as a substitute. The command to Abraham was that every male had to be circumcised to acknowledge the affirmation and commitment to the covenant. Thus circumcision entitled the newborn male to share in the promise of mercy which God had made with Abraham and his children forever. It was thus appropriate that at this ceremony the name of the child was confirmed much the same way that Christian parents used to “name” their children at their baptisms – a custom that in recent decades has gone by the wayside.

Not only was the day of circumcision paramount for the naming of the child and his inclusion in the covenant of mercy, it also had a great deal to play in the future of the child especially the first born one. The first born male in olden times had a position of honour – he was the proof of fertility, the hope of the continued family line, the heir of the family authority and the responsibility of nurturer and provider in case of the father’s death. Thus this day was accorded an all important position within the family unit. However in accordance to Jewish tradition the first born belonged to God and was to be given back to God just as Abraham had been commanded to relinquish Isaac. But even as God redeemed Isaac by providing a ram to be sacrificed in his stead, God also stipulated a “buy back” in the Book of Numbers. For 5 shekels the child was deemed freed or redeemed from God. This sum – about $2.50 was paid to the Temple at the ceremony of circumcision and naming. It was also at this time that the parents could declare this child dedicated to God - e.g. Samuel or John the Baptist – and so dictate the future course of vocation for their first born son.

At Jesus’ circumcision his name was confirmed and that name, Jesus, was to have great meaning for all people. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua (or Joshua) meaning Yahweh saves. Yahweh meaning, “I am who I am” thus implied that Jesus became “I am the One who saves”. In Jesus, God came to humans to save them from themselves. Herein lies the great Good News for us. While Jewish tradition makes the circumcision and naming an exclusive rite for Jewish identity, Jesus’ naming becomes an inclusive rite for all who would believe. In fact Jesus came not just for the benefit of Israel but for the whole earth as Scripture declares.

Whereas Luke mentions the naming of Jesus as the fulfilment of the message delivered by the angel to Mary that she was to name her son Jesus, Paul puts a theological spin on the significance. In his letter to the Galatians Paul speaks of the redemption of humanity as a whole as well as of human individually. However that redemption has to do with God being present in Jesus. And as Jesus’ name implies, God is with us. What this means for those who believe is that they are liberated from the slavery to sin which had been their previous lot.

In the first 3 verses of chapter 4 Paul uses three sets of images to compare the situation of believers and Jesus’ role as trustee. First he declares that sinners although heirs are in a time of waiting and anticipation. Second, that in this period they are like ordinary slaves under the trusteeship of guardians. The third image is of orphans who remain homeless until they are adopted into the family, or full members.

What Paul declares here is that humanity like minors and like slaves are unable of themselves to belong to the divine family. Yet God has taken the steps to adopt us. In Jesus, God has come to us and by the very name of Jesus has made known that the divine is here and is the one who saves. The action of God in Jesus is nothing less that God coming among us to redeem us in order that we might be adopted as children of God, and if children of God then heirs of God’s kingdom.

To understand this we need to understand something of orphans and the legal system around adopted. Any child whose father had died was considered an orphan. That child whether in the care of the mother or the state could not be adopted unless certain regulations and fees had been met and paid. A mother could sell the child into slavery or even have a male relative take the child from her. But in order to adopt the child certain fees and legal papers had to be completed. Once completed the biologic parent had no further claim on the child and the child had no further claim or responsibility to the former life. As you can appreciate this usually had the effect of a child being adopted into a higher class or more prosperous future.

Again Paul reminds us that even though the child has a new family by way of this adoption his or her plight is still like the slave until the inheritance is realized. Until that time the trustee is responsible for seeing that the future heir is brought up in such a way as to be worthy and responsible to that inheritance. Once more we are told that to accomplish this God in Christ Jesus has become the trustee and by means of the Holy Spirit guides educates and prepares us for that eventuality.

Christmas with all its pomp hype and emotional celebration extends beyond the birth to include the naming of Jesus and even unto the revelation of the Epiphany. It is a time not just for retelling the birth narrative but for appreciating just what God has done in Jesus and what is revealed in that name. It is unfortunate that this Sunday has become known as low Sunday as in staying away most miss the opportunity to see what God really has accomplished in Jesus, and what that name really implies. Perhaps those of us who have come to know the significance might come to share the ‘ah-ha’ moment with others, and again experience the Christmas euphoria even if somewhat on a more cerebral plain.