“O LORD…how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:1)
Well, we’re deep into Christmastide now. Eight days deep, in fact. Just last week, gathered here on Christmas Eve, in the dim glow of candlelight we heard the story that we’re so familiar with, of angels showing up in dreams with messages, of shepherds out in the fields being confronted by, at first a solitary and then a whole host of angels, of a Virgin birth, and of the Word made flesh. What an extraordinary season!
And yet, here, in the midst of Christmas, we’re confronted rather abruptly with these words from Luke’s gospel that stick out like a sore thumb, or something: “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.”
I say “rather abruptly” because it’s a single verse that we might otherwise easily enough skim right over. Luke clearly must want us to notice. What, given that it’s crammed in there between the miraculous narratives of the birth of Jesus and then his presentation in the Temple where Simeon and Anna marvel over him, filling the sound-waves with prophetic praise. No, this verse doesn’t really fit well with either of those narratives and yet, there it is: on the eighth day Jesus was circumcised and named.
How spectacularly, ordinary. How normal, boring even.
Why, though? Why does Luke include such an everyday detail of Jesus’ early life especially when so much else of his early years is excluded from record? And why does he want us to take note? Because Luke wants us to know God not just in the miraculous and the extravagant but in the ordinary and everyday as well.
Circumcision is a part of the covenant that every Israelite boy, at eight days old, had to undertake. And so, on the eighth day, Mary and Joseph being good, pious, Jewish parents are observant of the laws and customs and have their son circumcised. Just like every other Jewish boy.
It’s one thing to discern God’s presence when we gather together for worship and partake of the bread and wine of the Eucharist. It’s another thing all together to discern God’s working in the ordinary, day-to-day work of being a parent or a spouse, of being a friend or a neighbour. It’s almost as if Luke wants us to see even the everyday as shot through with the glory of God, now that Christ Jesus has assumed our flesh and every square inch of the ordinaryness of being a human creature. What if the whole world is sacramental, that is, given to be enjoyed with God? How might that change the way we go about things?
And so at Christmas time we recall and retell the story of God’s coming down to become fully human, ordinarily human. Coming to the everdayness of human life, taking all that it means to be human, and filling it with the life and light of God.
In Christ, God identifies with us in our humanity. He undergoes all that we undergo. He knows all of the ways in which we are tempted (though he himself was without sin), he knows all of our joys and our frustrated and unrealized longings and desires. There is no point of our humanity, there is no point of your life, which God in Christ has not touched. And he takes it, all of it, into himself so that all of it might be shot through with his very life.
This is important to remember because it is the everyday that makes up the majority of the fabric of our Christian life. Sure, we may have “mountain top” moments, but most of our life isn’t lived there, in the ecstatic or the sublime, it is lived in the ordainary moments that make up the bulk of our day—the rising from sleep, the preparing of meals, the raising of children, the loving of spouses, the going to and coming from work, the small-talk with neighbours and so on.
The English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton talks about what he calls a minimal beauty. It is one thing to witness the beauty of a glorious Cathedral church or a picturesque landscape—it is one thing to notice Jesus Christ in the narrative of a Virgin birth or the prophetic reception of him in the Temple. However, there is also a minimal beauty that we engage with more frequently on a day-to-day basis: that of a dinner table well set, or a garden that invites us in, or a well-proportioned street with no building in particular sticking out and demanding to be noticed. The bulk of our Christian life is made up of this sort of every-day beauty, an everydayness which Christ took up, affirmed, and sanctified in his own everyday life.
“O LORD…how majestic is your name in all the earth!” proclaims the Psalmist. Not just in the miraculous events or the sacred locations, but in all the earth. How majestic!
But we must journey deeper still. For Luke’s point isn’t simply that God has entered the world in Jesus so that we might see him, even in the ordinary. Luke’s point, and the proclamation of the gospel, is that God has entered into the ordinary, everyday, in order to save it.
It’s in his name. Jesus—God saves. His name reveals who he is and what he has come to accomplish for us and in us.
Jesus’ ordinary human life—his being born, his being circumcised and named, his growing up into maturity, and all without sin, all in loving obedience to the Father—was for us. Some of the early Church Fathers had a saying: God became man that man might become God. That is to say, in becoming man and in submitting himself in loving obedience to the Law Christ in his own flesh makes it possible, opens up the way, for us to abide in loving relationship with God our Father, as his children. A wondrous exchange! The Son of God became Son of Man that we might become sons of God.
This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote in our lesson from Galatians: “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 sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
So, Christ fulfills the law in his body, literally having covenant obedience cut into his flesh, for us. But if what he does is for us, to save us, then his obedience has to be communicated to you and I somehow. And indeed it is, by faith in Christ when the Holy Spirit comes upon us at baptism, our very bodies are themselves marked by the loving obedience of Christ himself.
Elsewhere Paul writes, “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,” (Col 2:11-13).
Christ was circumcised in the flesh so that you might be circumcised spiritually. That is, a cutting away of your sinful nature. Indeed, Christians have seen here, in the first drawing of Christ’s blood at circumcision, a prefiguration, or even the first scene of the Passion of Christ. That is, the shedding of Christ’s blood here as an 8 day old infant points us already to the cross where Christ’s blood will be fully and finally shed for the life of the world, so that we might be freed from the power of sin and death, set free for life with God.
And it is the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism who brings this all home for us, who takes our lives and connects them to Christ’s own life and obedience. In the words of the Great Thanksgiving which we will pray in a moment as we approach the altar, his truth covers our error, his righteousness covers our sin, his life covers our death.
That’s why, for Christians, it is not circumcision but baptism that is the entry point into the covenant people of God. That is why, for Christians, it is the gift of the Holy Spirit and not cut flesh that seals our citizenship there. And that is why Christians traditionally are named at baptism. Because in baptism Christ circumcises us spiritually by the Holy Spirit and in the words of the liturgy, “marks us as [his] own forever.”
And so this New Year, may you be drawn ever deeper into the love of Christ, who became human for our sake, and sanctified the ordinary everyday with his presence and life, that we might know and love God more fully.