New Year’s Eve: the tinny screech of multicolored paper horns, and silly hats, and far, far too much to drink and fancy clothes, which, if the truth were told, an hour after looking terrific are seriously uncomfortable. And a careful drive home, and please God, let us avoid the cops. And the next day, this year a Monday, a feast day. The Holy Name of Jesus. Also known as the Circumcision of Jesus.
Well, yes. Thank you, Jesus. And without that name, how would we ever know when to say our Amen when we aren’t paying full attention. But in Jewish tradition on the eighth day after the birth of a son a mohel is called to perform the circumcision, the bris, the removal of the foreskin of the a healthy boy child’s penis, and this done in the presence of the father and the elders of his community. Circumcision is not unique to the Jewish people. We suspect the Ancient Egyptians did it. It is still practiced in Islam, some Eastern Christian communities, and throughout African tribal societies. There are some hygienic reasons for it, especially in hot climates with a lack of access to clean water. It became a general practice for all males in the United States, although there is some pushback, given that good hygiene no longer supports it and it is not painless. And even in the hands of a skilled surgeon, accidents happen.
But it is the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham (Gen. 17). It is as important a marker of the relationship of the Jewish people with the one God as baptism is in Christian communities. It is an important day, the day Jesus, son of Mary, foster son of Joseph, became a Jew. Incorporated into the body of Israel. Think about that for a moment. The Messiah, at eight days old, was initiated into the faith of Abraham. Of David. Of all the prophets and kings of Israel. That makes this procedure, which is a little embarrassing if not downright barbaric to a non-Abrahamic culture, critically important. It took place between Jesus’ birth in a stable and the arrival of the Gentile astrologers and scholars with gifts for the Holy Child. Jesus had to be a Jew first, before he could be the Messiah for the Jews, and then the Christ for the Gentiles.
Salvation history begins with the Old Testament, the Scriptures which developed and guided Israel for century upon century. Although it is also a war history in many ways, throughout is the suggestion that our God wanted to be known by all people, not just the Jewish people. Paul and his companions took an enormous risk when they realized that Greek and Asian Gentiles just weren’t going to put up with circumcision. Even for Peter and James in Jerusalem, that decision was a hard nut to swallow. But that critical choice by Paul nailed down the claim that God had initiated a new covenant, one based on acknowledging Jesus as the instrument of salvation. Because of that decision in the early spread of Christianity, our covenant with God, our circumcision, lies in baptism into the name of Jesus. This is big stuff.
So now we get this sort of lost twin feast day. But mostly it is a day when a lot of people are sleeping in to recover from any revelry from the night before. Perhaps it is more appropriate than we often think that we sing Auld Lang Syne, and cry and cheer, and maybe (politely) hug or kiss strangers. The old year passes, not just a leaf on the calendar, an artifact of history, but a recognition that the birth event of last week changed the world, not only for the Jewish people, but for all people. The old year passes. The old covenant passes. We still call the years AD, Anno Domini, the year of Our Lord, or more recently CE, or BCE, for the Common Era, before or after the approximate date of Jesus’ birth (yes, there is about a three or four year disparity, but close enough). It is the unspoken recognition of the cultural and universal significance of the birth of Jesus.
The Jewish people weren’t very inclusive. In ancient times they fought for their place and their God. By Classical Antiquity and Late Antiquity they were an oppressed minority, a self-protective society living by a complex theocratic legal structure, outliers in a world of philosophy and secular law. Just as in the first century of the Common Era, we Christians are again a minority, at least in America and Western Europe, and becoming more so all the time. And even in the most theologically and liturgically liberal churches, we are bound by laws of duty and obedience laid out in Scripture. We have a message, one of care for the bodies as well as the souls, the forgiveness of sins through that name, Jesus, of the poor, rich, imprisoned, hurt, proud, hungry, all people. That is part and parcel of this new covenant.
Yes, evangelism and mission are far too often associated with either European colonialism or social conservatives. But they are at the very root of our faith, the root of Jesse come in Jesus. But we cannot make the mistake of exclusion and legalism. From the moment Jesus sent out his disciples to spread the word, to convert the world, we were obligated to show forth his Light to everybody, if they choose to accept it. It is a hard balance to keep in the world and not of the world, but that is what Jesus, fully human and fully God, came to teach us.
We Christians hold the key to something universal and sacred, something that could change the world into the Kingdom of God. This is not a private club of the elect, but an obligation to share that gift with the entire world, in love, compassion, forgiveness. Don’t make resolutions that you won’t keep. Resolve to study, pray, learn about who we are, to follow Jesus, the good Jew and true God, named and circumcised on this day. Our diets and exercise regimes can come later.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.
Image:Mid-18th-century Russian icon By Unknown – http://www.cirota.ru/forum/view.php?subj=47937&fullview=1&order=asc, Public Domain, Link