Colossians 2:8-12; Luke 2:20-21, 40-52, Various verses in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers
For our family, this season has been a time of new things: the first Christmas of two babies (my eleventh and twelfth grandchildren) and the welcoming of a new puppy. These fresh lives seem appropriate as symbols of the (secular) New Year, and as reminders to us that God Himself graced our world, coming among us in new flesh— the flesh of a tiny baby who was taken to the Temple by his devout parents for circumcision and to be given a name.
Last week I had a brief interchange on Facebook with a theologian/friend, who insisted that, to all intents and purposes, Jesus and his family in Bethlehem must have looked utterly ordinary to the shepherds. I disagreed. After all, the passage that we read in Luke for this past Sunday begins by saying that “the shepherds glorified and praised God for all that they had seen and heard” (Luke 2:20). What was ALL they had heard and seen? Prepared hearts may see a great deal more than what is on the surface, and God sometimes makes the surface extraordinary as well. The flesh can shine, as much as the spirit, in God’s presence: here was a perfect Human Being for the first time since Creation, and much more! The shepherds didn’t go and tell everybody: “Angels appeared to us…but all we saw was a poor family.” Rather, they “glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen AS IT HAD BEEN TOLD THEM.” (Something that they SAW matched with what they had been TOLD about the Child’s identity and glory.) Including the Visitor’s humility.
Even the humility of this newborn is remarkable—not many babies are laid in mangers! And who can imagine what the prepared eyes of the shepherds saw in this new and perfect Human Life? The seventeenth century poet Richard Crashaw had a different idea than my Protestant friend of what they perceived that night. I believe that the imagined words of Crashaw’s poetic shepherds may more closely match what happened in the actual scene:
Come, we shepherds, whose blest sight
Hath met Love’s noon in Nature’s night,
Come, lift we up our loftier song,
And wake the sun that lies too long…
Tell him we now can show him more
Than e’er he showed to mortal sight,
Than he himself e’er saw before,
Which to be seen needs not his light.
We saw Thee and we blest the sight,
We saw Thee by Thine own sweet light.
Welcome, all wonders in one sight! Eternity shut in a span!
Summer in winter, Day in night, Heaven in earth, and God in Man!
Great little one! Whose all redeeming birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth!
Something, Someone remarkable was here. In His newness, as in all things, Christ our God astounds us! No one else—not even Adam and Eve—had been perfect in humanity. Here was the new creation, all bound up in seven pounds of human flesh, lying in a manger. As we meditate on the Christ child, we are amazed to think that even before his birth was his gestation—foetus, embryo, zygote. That deep divine condescension dwarfs even his remarkable descent into the Jordan, in terms of its extravagance. God became a fertilized egg in a womb that He would bless and make more spacious than the heavens. All human beginnings are hard: the newborn undergoes the shock of cold, air, light, un-cushioned noise. Even more, Jewish boy babies also undergo circumcision when they are given their name on the eighth day, the symbolic day of new creation. And so Jesus faces the knife, foreshadowing the nails and spears to come; his name, “Jesus” means “the Lord Saves.” As we read: “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).
Just a little later in this passage, we are told that Mary and Joseph do all this for their new child, as well as returning for the ritual 40 day purification, because they are obedient to the Torah. To what precisely are they being obedient? Why, to God’s claim on their whole lives, as seen in his claim on the firstborn of every family. That claim was dramatically enacted in the Exodus and in the sacrificial system laid down for Israel in those first years. As God commands, “Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exodus 13:2 RSV). Yet again in Exodus, he insists, “The first-born of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do likewise with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. You shall be men consecrated to me” (Exodus 22:29-31 RSV).
The offering of the firstborn human son to the LORD did not, of course, entail human sacrifice, as with the pagan nations round about: the true God is not needy of blood, or greedy for death. This becomes clear in the dramatic story of Abraham and Isaac, for whom a ram was provided. But the gift of the first-born to God, accompanied by the sacrifice of a pure animal, was a token and sign of the consecration of God’s people: “you shall be…consecrated to me.” This holiness was not required because God needed Israel, but because the people needed Him. As when they were slaves in Egypt, so always the people of Israel needed the care, protection and sustenance of the Lord. They were his, the sheep of his pasture. And so he reminds them, with regards to the first-born, “For all the first-born are mine; on the day that I slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the first-born in Israel, both of man and of beast; they shall be mine: I am the LORD” (Num 3:13 RSV). The same God who waged war on their behalf, requiring Pharoah to release the Hebrews, had a claim on the Jewish people for their own benefit (not His) and indeed for the salvation of the whole human race. For in their midst He would appear, long generations later, and the preparation had to be made.
The idea of a physical sign in the flesh in order to mark off God’s people may seem odd—but it is also a reminder that God cares for all of us, body and all. God came into the world to rescue us not only from sin but also from death, after all. We belong, in our entire lives, and not just our thoughts or imaginations, to God. But outward circumcision was only valuable in the OT times if it was matched by inner devotion. As Moses reminds the people of God, they are to be completely, and not just superficially given to God: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deut. 10:16-17 RSV) But inner devotion is elusive for a human being, since we are not whole, but fragmented. Our hearts do not always obey our minds, nor do our bodies. And so the people are promised that God will take a hand in things, helping them to achieve the holiness that he commands: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6 RSV).
God does not simply look for lip-service or outward worship, but for the real thing. Yet He knows our frailty and brokenness, and so will even help us with our worship, changing our hearts so that we can truly love Him. Though God’s Holy Spirit was active in the Old Testament, we know that it is with the coming of Christ and with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost that such a radical inward change was made more fully possible. Jesus models the devotion which the Father seeks in his sons and daughters in the second part of last week’s passage:
And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2: 40-52)
Here we jump forward twelve years and find him, with his parents, again in the Temple. During his circumcision they had known where he was, for they had carried him; twelve years later, he acts as his own agent, though he is not fully matured. And he is clearly completely at home in “His Father’s house,” even though the Nazareth party had begun the long trek home, and even though the Temple was filled with teachers of the Law who did not recognize him. Both as a baby, and here during the family’s Passover visit to the Temple, Jesus reminds us of God’s salvation. In the first case he reminds us by his given name, and by his willingness to go under the knife, as a first-born dedicated to the LORD. In the second trip, he reminds us of his knowledge of God’s ways, and dedication to the Father. His earthly parents had lost him for three days, but his heavenly Father had not, just as his disciples mourned Him for three days, but he was never separated, even while he was in Hades, from the Father in Heaven.
In Christ, after all “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” as St. Paul tells us, in the epistle reading for the Day of the Circumcision. The entire passage reminds us of Christ’s special position, and of our life in him:
See that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Col 2:8-12 RSV).
So, then, we have ourselves undergone a kind of circumcision, since we live in Christ, the one who fulfilled the entire Torah. He was taken to the temple at eight days, and we, in solidarity with him, have been separated to God. We are, with him, made brand new—buried in his death at baptism, and raised to new life, in the hope of the resurrection to come. His death was the true circumcision, the complete putting off of sinful flesh that was foreshadowed by the rite of the Torah. The circumcision that we have undergone is therefore the fulfillment of that which had been promised by Moses—a circumcision of the heart, of all that we are, done by the Lord, not by the hands of a priest. And with this circumcision, we have been given a new nature and a new name—the name of the Lord Jesus, by whom we call ourselves, “Christians” or “Christ’s ones.” We bear on our brows, sealed by the Spirit, his name, for we belong to Him. For His sake, and in His strength, we learn to give to the Father (in words that I remember from an old “pietistic” song) our “dearest and best.” And we expect that there will be changes in every area of our lives—a whole “new creation”—not simply in a special section that we mark off as “spiritual.”
And so, at the head of the year, we remember the One who is our Head—and “the head of every rule and authority.” We rejoice in the new life that has touched our world, in a tiny baby, in the wise words of a twelve-year old Boy about his Father’s business, in His utterly holy life and astonishing ministry, in his death and resurrection and ascension. As He promised in the final book of the Bible, He is making all things new!
Welcome, all wonders in one sight! Eternity shut in a span!
Summer in winter, Day in night, Heaven in earth, and God in Man!