Remembering that We are Gentiles (The Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ)
The Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ
(a.k.a. The Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus)
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Most of the world calls this day “New Year’s.” January 1 marks the beginning of the Gregorian calendar, which is used throughout the Western world and acknowledged internationally for commerce and communications. That is, despite local, traditional calendars from various cultures around the world (e.g. Rosh Hashannah, Chinese New Year, etc.), this is the day when we agree that the calendar shifts from 2016 to 2017.
But in the Church catholic, today also marks a different occasion. January 1 is the eighth day after December 25, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. In keeping with Scripture, specifically Luke 2:21, this is the day when Mary and Joseph’s child was circumcised and named Jesus.
The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer calls this feast, “The Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ;” earlier Prayer Books called it, “The Circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ;” while the Church of England today splits the difference and calls it, “The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.”
There is some understandable discomfort with talking in public about Circumcision, let alone naming a church holiday after the practice. Ritual circumcision involves a Jewish priest or rabbi cutting the foreskin off of a baby boy’s private parts. These are things we usually don’t discuss in polite company.
But today I want us to focus on this uncomfortable, but sacred act in the life of our Savior and Lord. Today, as an infant, Jesus’ parents took him to be circumcised by a priest from the tribe of Levi.
Now, first off, let’s be clear that this was not a “medical procedure,” as we understand them. Throughout the 20th century it became popular for American doctors to remove the foreskin from all male children, regardless of their family’s religious affiliation. This was alleged to be a hygienic concern. I’m not a doctor, so I’m really not qualified to offer an opinion about that. But you’ll still find in Jewish hospitals or among Jewish families, that they will delay circumcision until the eighth day and have a rabbi (not a medical doctor) perform the ritual.
Ritual circumcision is a religious act. It is performed in obedience to the Hebrew Law (what we call the Old Testament). Leviticus 12:3 says, “On the eighth day, the flesh of the boy’s foreskin must be circumcised” (CEB). Mary and Joseph were obeying the commandments of God as they had received them in the Bible. They were good and faithful Jews.
This is why St. Paul teaches, Jesus Christ was “born of a woman, [and] born under the law” (Gal 4:4). He was born in a particular time and place, inside a particular cultural and religious reality. And Jesus’ identity as a Jewish male born in 1st Century Judea is not inconsequential. Jesus’ Jewishness is actually key to our salvation… because we are not Jewish!
Our brief passage from Galatians tells this to us so quickly and gracefully, that it is easy to miss:
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”
God sent his Son, the eternal Word of God, to become a human being, born of a woman. But Jesus was not born to any woman, but to a woman “under the law.” He was born into a Jewish family. He was born to the Chosen People, whom the LORD GOD had been relating with since at least the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God journeyed with this chosen people for centuries: from the covenant with Abraham; to Jacob and Joseph’s journey to Egypt; to generations of slavery there; to the Exodus escape under the leadership of Moses; to the reception of the Law on Mt. Sinai; to crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land with Joshua; to the time of the great Judges and Prophets; to the marriage of Boaz to Ruth the Moabite, David’s grandparents; to the anointing of Saul to be the first king of Israel; to the selection of David to succeed him; through the nasty divorce between the northern and southern tribes under King Rehoboam; through the fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians; through the fall of the Southern Kingdom to the Babylonians; through the Exile in Babylon; through the return to their fallen homes in and around Jerusalem; through the days of foreign rule by Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, and finally, Romans.
God remained faithful to this Chosen People through all these trials and tribulations. Despite all their failures and despite all their suffering, YHWH was their God and Israel was YHWH’s people.
So “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law” (Gal 4:4-5a). Jesus came first for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt 15:24). Jesus came to restore Israel to wholeness, and prove once and for all that God never has and never will abandon them. They are the light to the nations, God’s chosen vessel for grace.
Paul continues, “God sent his Son … in order to redeem those who were under the Law (the Jews), so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal 4:4-5). The “we” here is a different subject than “those who were under the Law.” Remember, the Apostle is writing to the church in Galatia, which is in central Turkey. It’s possible that some of the Christians there were of Jewish ancestry, but surely not all. God’s mission pivots from Israel to extend to the rest of us Gentiles.
And the critical point we need to hear when we read about Jesus being circumcised is that God saved us through Israel, through the Jews, the chosen people. We, Gentiles, who did not receive the Promises of Abraham, Moses, or David, don’t have any claim to YHWH’s salvation apart from our Jewish Messiah, Jesus the Christ. As Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22).
There is no natural connection between Israel, the chosen people of God, and all the rest of us from every family, language, people, and nation on earth (Rev 5:9 [Canticle 18, BCP, 94]). We are Gentiles invited into the promise.
We don’t have any inheritance or privileges from Israel on our own. We don’t have the Promises of God without an extension through the people of Israel. Instead, we become children and heirs through adoption. The invitation comes through love. Parents must have great love to adopt a child that isn’t theirs by birth. And we are the beneficiaries and heirs to God’s promises, only through this extraordinary love that God showed to the world through Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father.
The Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus is our reminder that we are Gentiles who have inherited a Foreign Story, adopted into a foreign family, but loved as children even though we don’t deserve it. Jesus is a thoroughly Jewish Messiah, who chooses to love and minister to people outside the Covenant. He cares for the Samaritan woman at the well, he heals Samaritan lepers, he heals the servant of a Roman centurion, and he sends the apostles to “be [his] witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
And because we are adopted children, we don’t have the right to lord our status over anyone else. We don’t get to tell people inside or outside the Church that we have everything right or that our ways is the best way. This applies to worship and church life, but also to social and political life. Being a Gentile in the Christian story means living in humble gratitude. God chose to love us and save us even though God didn’t have to!
As we begin this New Year, let us continually offer thanks and praise to God for inviting us into the Family. Let us thank God for not giving us what we deserve in our sinfulness, but for choosing to know and love us through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jennings, Willie. "Being Baptized: Race." In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. 2nd ed. Edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.