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The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

22 December 2016

SUPERSTOCK

Divine injury, prefiguring the Passion: The Circumcision of Christ by Fra Angelico, in the Fresco Museo di San Marco, in Florence

Divine injury, prefiguring the Passion: The Circumcision of Christ by Fra Angelico, in the Fresco Museo di San Marco, in Florence

Numbers 6.22-end; Psalm 8; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21

 

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was circumcised in obedience to the law for our sake and given the Name that is above every name: give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, to worship him in the freedom of the Spirit, and to proclaim him as the Saviour of the world; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

ON CHRISTMAS Day in 1609, Lancelot Andrewes preached before the court of King James I and VI at Whitehall, and took as his text Galatians 4.4-5. Andrewes’s modern editor, Peter McCullough, shows how he explores Paul’s insistence that Jesus was “born of a woman” and “born under the law”.

Jesus takes his humanity from Mary. It is his circumcision that marks his submission to the law. In making that connection, Andrewes was not doing anything particularly unusual. Where he broke new ground in Protestant writing in English, Professor McCullough explains, was in going on to read circumcision not as an anticipation of baptism, or as a mark of the Old Covenant — the conventional inter­pretations — but as a type of the Passion.

In Andrewes’s reading of the circumcision, Christ “entered Bond anew with us, and in sign that so He did, He shed then a few drops of his blood, whereby he signed the Bond . . . and gave those few drops then . . . as a pledge or earnest, that when the fulness of time came, He would be ready to shed all the rest, as he did” (Lancelot Andrewes: Selected ser­mons and lectures, edited by Peter McCullough, Oxford University Press, 2005).

All the ambiguity of the Church’s celebration of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus can be found just under the surface of Andrewes’s summing up. On the one hand is a certain discomfort at the idea of a wounded baby, and foreboding at the suffering still to come.

On the other is the opportunity to be joyfully thankful for the moment at which the infant takes on the name Jesus, “given by the angel before he was conceived” (Luke 2.21), which will become synonym­ous with salvation.

That tension had been captured earlier by the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell (1561-95), who was tor­tured and hanged for his clandestine missionary activities:

 

The Vine of life distilleth droppes of grace,

Our rock gives yssue to a heavenly springe;

Teares from His eyes, blood runnes from wounded place,

Which showers, to heaven, of joy a harvest bringe.

”The Circumsision”

 

He leads us, if we will allow it, beyond hesitations to wonder at the astonishing nature of God, who chooses to enter the world in the most vulnerable human form, ac­­cepts the limitations of human jurisdiction, and then bursts those limits by conquering death.

“Your majesty above the heavens is praised out of the mouths of babes at the breast” (Psalm 8.2), proclaims the Psalmist. Here, on the eighth day of Jesus’s earthly life, it is possible to see “the great thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2.15): divine majesty glorified in and by the circumcised and newly named child.

A procession of saints has pre­ceded this feast: Stephen, the first martyr (26 December), John the Evangelist (27 December), and the Holy Innocents (28 December), with lesser commemorations of Thomas Becket (29 December), and John Wyclif (31 December). It is easy to see how most of them bore witness, through testimony, writing, and brave critiques of authority, to the saving name of Jesus.

The disturbing exceptions are the nameless Holy Innocents, the horri­fy­ing collateral damage of Herod’s insane fear that a new king was about to take his throne (Matthew 2.16-18).

The 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books hailed them as witnesses who had praised Christ “not in speaking but in dying”, and followed this with a petition that God would “mortify and kill all vices in us” (collect of the day).

Contemporary Anglican prayer books have turned their suffering outward, towards prayer for all innocent victims of persecution and abuse. The Anglican Church of Southern Africa prays for “grace not to be indifferent in the face of cruelty or oppression but to defend the weak from the tyranny of the strong” (An Anglican Prayer Book, 1989).

A collect from A New Zealand Prayer Book — He Karakia Mihin­are o Aotearoa (1989) is much more visceral:

 

Loving Jesus, let the tears of Rachel express our desolation, let her weep for battered babies and clinical deformity, weep for human cruelty and ignor­ance and arrogance. Loving Jesus, may we weep with her, may we see what we are doing, what is happening to us; help us repair it soon.

 

The infant Jesus points silently towards his own death: “I am with you.” The adult Jesus promises that prayers asked in his name are always answered (John 14.13-14).

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