A Sermon for Sunday: The Circumcision of Christ/Octave of Christmas | Revd Dr Robert Wilson

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Circumcision of Christ/Octave of Christmas

Today is the Octave of Christmas, but since the sixth century this day has also been the occasion when we recall the Circumcision of Christ. Circumcision occurred on the eighth day after birth for the Jewish male and marked them out as members of the chosen people of God, in accordance with God’s promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The Circumcision of Christ shows that he was the true seed of Abraham, born of a woman, born under the law in order to redeem those who are under the law. All, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, will now be blessed who turn to him.

But what does the fact that Jesus was a circumcised Jewish male have to do with the Christian faith? Should not religious truth be general and universal, rather than rooted in a particular time and place? Should we not rather follow the example of the ancient Greeks who sought to establish the truth through the study of philosophy and tried to look beyond the contingent particularities of human history to establish a truth that was general and universal? Surely what matters should not be the particular history of one time and place, but a universal philosophy? Much modern post-Enlightenment western thought has followed the ancient Greeks in this respect and has contrasted the contingent truths of history (which are particular to one time and place) with the eternal truths of reason. Hence, from this perspective, the Bible is seen as crude and unsophisticated because it is focused on events, first in the history of Israel, then in the life of Jesus, that happened at one particular time and place in history. People find the so called “scandal of particularity” offensive. Surely everyone should be allowed to have their own private religious experience and we should shun the biblical worldview which attributes universal significance to the events of a particular time and place?

But what would we say to someone who said to us that we should take no interest in our own family history, because it is something that is particular to our own family rather than to humanity in general? We would probably say to them that we found their seeming rationalism in practice unreasonable, for it is only by being part of one particular human family that we can relate to any other human family. Here, at least, we find that the so called scandal of particularity is something that does not detract from our being part of humanity as a whole, but rather enhances it. It is only by telling the story of our own human family that we can show how we relate to humanity as a whole. It is not truth about abstract philosophy, but rather one of our own lived experience.

Now the biblical worldview functions in this way. It is not about abstract philosophical truth of the type associated with the ancient Greek philosophers or post-Enlightenment Western rationalism, but rather about truth lived out in actual human experience. It tells the story of how God, the creator and redeemer of all, makes himself known, not through a philosophical system of abstract ideas, but in the history of one particular nation. It tells of the call of Abraham and the promise that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed, of the escape from bondage in Egypt under Moses and the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai to guide the life of the people. It tells of their struggles to live up to the standard given in the Law of Moses and how their failure ultimately led to the collapse of the nation. In the face of adversity in the present it still looks forward to final redemption, when the truth which they had experienced in the history of their own nation would be known universally.

The Circumcision of Christ shows that he is the true seed of Abraham, in whom the hope of Israel for redemption and a new covenant between God and man has been fulfilled. The Incarnation is all about the scandal of particularity, that when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, that they might receive the adoption of sons. We can now become by grace what he is by nature. This is the fulfilment of the promise of God to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. If we belong to Christ, then we are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. In other words when we are baptised and become Christians we become part of the story and become heirs of the promises of salvation history.

While the early Christians took this point for granted in the second century a heresy arose under the leadership of Marcion which denied this fundamental truth. Marcion claimed to be a true disciple of St. Paul’s teaching that all are justified by faith in Christ, rather than the Law of Moses. However, he replaced St. Paul’s contrast between the ages of the old and new covenant with the belief that there were in fact two different deities. According to Marcion the God of the Old Covenant was the creator of the world and a god of judgment, and of wrath and anger. By contrast, the God of Jesus was a God of love who had come to rescue people from the false God of the Jews. Needless to say this teaching could not be reconciled with St. Paul’s letters as they stood, so Marcion produced his own version of them in which all references to the purposes of God in salvation history were removed. Against Marcion, the Church strongly insisted that it was impossible to separate the message of Jesus from the history of salvation as recorded in the old testament. The heresy of Marcion wrongly undermined the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and was a denial of the doctrine of creation. Jesus did not come to save the world from the false creator god, but was himself the Word of God made flesh and thus both the redeemer and the creator.

But, we might say, is it really necessary to make such an issue of this point today? On the contrary it is a matter which cannot be emphasised enough. There is much evidence of Marcionism in modern Western Christianity. People say that the Christian faith is about love and not about judgement and that the new testament represents a completely different religion from the old. We need not concern ourselves, it is said, with the old testament, but only need to follow the precepts of the new testament. But this is precisely to fall into the same mistake that Marcion made. It is not possible to understand the new testament without recourse to the old testament. If we try to do this we will have to reject much of the new testament as well (which is precisely what Marcion had to do). The result of this error has been aptly summarised as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of Christ without the Cross.”

This is why twelve prophecies from the history of Israel are recited in the Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday, and when the Exultet is sung it refers to the Exodus as “the night in which thou didst cause our forefathers, the children of Israel, when brought out from Egypt, to pass through the Red Sea with dry feet.” That is why in the Canon of the Mass the priest refers to the “sacrifice of our patriarch Abraham.” We can speak of the children of Israel as our forefathers because by faith we can become their heirs. The so called scandal of particularity is not an obstacle to our faith but is rather something that is fundamental to it. This is what the Eucharist, the Mass is all about, the re-presentation in liturgical action of events wrought out once for all in time and history, when we celebrate that types and shadows have their ending for the newer rite is here.

So it is right that we celebrate today the Circumcision of Christ, for our faith is not an abstract philosophical system of ideas divorced from the world of particular events, but is rooted in flesh and blood, in time and history and in lived experience. Grace does not abolish nature, but rather perfects it. In celebrating the Circumcision of Christ we show that we are followers of him who did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but rather to fulfil them.

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