From great man to great myth

I’m certainly late with this post but this morning I received my January issue of Pravoslavlje, the official newspaper of the Serbian Patriarchate, and I found this article which had been translated from English to Serbian and originally appeared in the New York Times (here):

St. Nick in the Big City

ST. NICHOLAS was a super-saint with an immense cult for most of the Christian past. There may be more icons surviving for Nicholas alone than for all the other saints of Christendom put together. So what happened to him? Where’s the fourth-century Anatolian bishop who presided over gift-giving to poor children? And how did we get the new icon of mass consumerism in his place?

Well, it’s a New York story.

In all innocence, the morphing began with the Dutch Christians of New Amsterdam, who remembered St. Nicholas from the old country and called him Sinte Klaas. They had kept alive an old memory — that a kindly old cleric brought little gifts to the poor in the weeks leading up to the Feast of the Nativity. While the gifts were important, they were never meant to overshadow the message of Jesus’s humble birth.

But today’s chubby Santa is not about giving to the poor. He has had his saintly garb stripped away. The filling out of the figure, the loss of the vestments, and his transformation into a beery fellow smoking a pipe combined to form a caricature of Dutch peasant culture. Eventually this Magic Santa (a suitable patron saint if there ever was one for the burgeoning capitalist machinery of the city) was of course popularized by the Manhattanite Clement Clarke Moore published in “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” in The Troy (New York) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823.

The newly created deity Santa soon attracted a school of iconographers: notable among them were Thomas Nast, whose 1863 image of a red-suited giant in Harper’s Weekly set the tone, and Haddon Sundblom, who drew up the archetypal image we know today on behalf of the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s. This Santa was regularly accompanied by the flying reindeer: godlike in his majesty and presiding over the winter darkness like Odin the sky god returned.

The new Santa also acquired a host of Nordic elves to replace the small dark-skinned boy called Black Peter, who in Christian tradition so loved St. Nicholas that he traveled with him everywhere. But, some might say, wasn’t it better to lose this racially stereotyped relic? Actually, no, considering the real St. Nicholas first came into contact with Peter when he raided the slave market in his hometown and railed against the trade. The story tells us that when the slavers refused to take him seriously, he used the church’s funds to redeem Peter and gave the boy a job in the church.

And what of the throwing of the bags of gold down the chimney, where they landed in the stockings and little shoes that had been hung up to dry by the fireplace? Charming though it sounds, it reflected the deplorable custom, still prevalent in late Roman society when the Byzantine church was struggling to establish the supremacy of its values, of selling surplus daughters into bondage. This was a euphemism for sexual slavery — a trade that still blights our world.

As the tale goes, Nicholas had heard that a father in the town planned to sell his three daughters because his debts had been called in by pitiless creditors. As he did for Black Peter, Nicholas raided his church funds to secure the redemption of the girls. He dropped the gold down the chimney to save face for the impoverished father.

This tale was the origin of a whole subsequent series of efforts among the Christians who celebrated Nicholas to make some effort to redeem the lot of the poor — especially children, who always were, and still are, the world’s front-line victims. Such was the origin of Christmas almsgiving: gifts for the poor, not just gifts for our friends.

I like St. Nicholas. You can keep chubby Santa.

John Anthony McGuckin is a professor of religious history at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia.

Gain your neighbor and you’ll gain God

Taken from Leah’s blog Christ is in our midst! (here):

More than fifteen hundred years ago St. Anthony the Great declared that “a time is coming when people will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘you are mad, you are not like us.”

It may well be that the time that St. Anthony foresaw is now upon us, or at least is rapidly approaching.  And because of what we have learned, we know what we have to do about it.  The same St. Anthony, with all holy people, has told us.  I urge you, and, if I could, I would command you, to read St. Anthony’s thirty-eight sayings in the Saying of the Desert Fathers.  Everything we need to know in order to live is there for us in its simplest and clearest form.

Abba Anthony first tells us that when we are plagued by whirling thoughts (logismoi) and worn down by an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness and futility (acedia), which we will be in this sinful world, we must simply and diligently work and pray, by pure devotion and sheer obedience.  We must pay attention to ourselves and mind our own business.  We must do our work, and let God — and other people — do theirs.

He also tells us that whoever we are, we should always have God before our eyes; and whatever we do, we should always do according to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; and wherever we are, we should not easily leave that place.

He further tells us (with his friend Abba Pambo) not to trust in our own righteousness, not to worry about the past, and to guard our mouths and our stomachs.  He tells us to take responsibility for our own behavior, and to expect to be ferociously tempted to our very last breath.  He tells us that there is no salvation for us without trial and temptation, and that without being tested, no person can be healed, illumined and perfected.  He tells us that each one of us has our own unique life, that no two people are the same, and that each of us has to be the person that God made us to be:  where we are, when we are, with whom we are, from whom we are, and such as we are, according to God’s inscrutable providence.

St. Anthony also tells us, as do all the saints, that our life and our death begin and end with our fellow human beings.  He insists that if we have gained our neighbor, we have gained our God, but if we have scandalized our neighbor, we have sinned against Christ.  He says that all of our ascetical disciplines, including our scholarly studies, are means to an end; they are not ends in themselves.  The end is discernment and dispassion and the knowledge of God through keeping His commandments, the first and greatest of which is love.  And he teaches that our only hope to escape the countless snares of this broken world that seek to enslave us is found in one thing alone:  Christ-like humility.

~reflection by Fr. Thomas Hopko

The Twelfth Day of Christmas

I’m a few days late with this post as this past Tuesday was the Twelfth day of Christmas for us on the Old Calendar. I found this post on Fr. Peter-Michael Preble’s blog (here). I didn’t know that in some cultures there was a connection between All Hallows Eve and the Twelvth Night. The picture above, by the way, is our Slava Kolach (Slava Cake) for Thursday’s feast of St. John the Baptist.  In Serbian tradition a similar bread is made on Christmas day, though not as ornate,  in which a coin is placed and the one who finds it has good luck that year:
Twelfth Night is a festival in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany and concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas.
It is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking”. However, there is currently some confusion as to which night is Twelfth Night: some count the night of Epiphany itself (sixth of January) to be Twelfth Night. One source of this confusion is the Medieval custom of starting each new day at sunset, so that Twelfth Night precedes Twelfth Day.
A recent tradition in some English-speaking countries holds that it is unlucky to leave Christmas decorations hanging after Twelfth Night, a belief originally attached to the festival of Candlemas (2 February).

In medieval and Tudor England[citation needed], the Twelfth Night marked the end of a winter festival that started on All Hallows Eve — now more commonly known as Halloween. The Lord of Misrule symbolizes the world turning upside down. On this day the King and all those who were high would become the peasants and vice versa. At the beginning of the Twelfth Night festival, a cake that contained a bean was eaten. The person who found the bean would rule the feast. Midnight signaled the end of his rule and the world would return to normal. The common theme was that the normal order of things was reversed. This Lord of Misrule tradition date back to pre-Christian European festivals such as the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Food and drink are the center of the celebrations in modern times, and all of the most traditional ones go back many centuries. The punch called wassail is consumed especially on Twelfth Night, but throughout Christmas time, especially in the UK. Around the world, special pastries, such as the tortell and king cake are baked on Twelfth Night, and eaten the following day for the Feast of the Epiphany celebrations. In English and French custom, the Twelfth-cake was baked to contain a bean and a pea, so that those who received the slices containing them should be designated king and queen of the night’s festivities.
In colonial America, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home, and when taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, any edible portions would be consumed with the other foods of the feast. The same held true in the 19th-20th centuries with fruits adorning Christmas trees. Fresh fruits were hard to come by, and were therefore considered fine and proper gifts and decorations for the tree, wreaths, and home. Again, the tree would be taken down on Twelfth Night, and such fruits, along with nuts and other local produce used, would then be consumed.

In the eastern Alps, a tradition called Perchtenlaufen exists. Two to three hundred masked young men rush about the streets with whips and bells driving out evil spirits. In Nuremberg until 1616, children frightened spirits away by running through the streets and knocking loudly at doors. In some countries, and in the Catholic religion worldwide, the Twelfth Night and Epiphany marks the start of the Carnival season, which lasts through Mardi Gras Day. Modern American Carnival traditions shine most brightly in New Orleans, where friends gather for weekly King Cake parties. Whoever gets the slice with the “king”, usually in the form of a miniature baby doll (symbolic of the Christ Child, “Christ the King”), hosts next week’s party.

“Pop Icon” Returns Orthodox Icon

These past few days have been busy ones, all of which culminated in yesterday’s feast of St. John the Baptist, our family Krsna Slava. We prepared food and more food and the house and the kids and our ourselves for a day of celebrating, welcoming guests…which means today we’re recovering. I caught a glimpse of this interesting news piece (actually a link was emailed to me) about Boy George yesterday which for obvious reasons I didn’t find the time to post earlier. Not something you come across everyday. (Source: here)

Boy George returns Christ icon to Cyprus church

Musician Boy George has agreed to return to the Church of Cyprus an icon of Christ that came into his possession 11 years after the Turkish invasion.

The former Culture Club singer bought the piece from a London art dealer in 1985 without knowing its origin.

Boy George – real name George O’Dowd – said he was “happy the icon is going back to its original rightful home”.

“I have always been a friend of Cyprus and have looked after the icon for 26 years,” he added.

“I look forward to seeing the icon on display in Cyprus for the moment and finally to the Church of St Charalambos from where it was illegally stolen.”

The goodwill gesture came about after the church in New Chorio-Kythrea village gave evidence proving it was its rightful owner.

Bishop Porfyrios of Neapolis expressed “joy and gratitude” as the singer handed over the icon at the St Anagyre church in north London.

The gesture, he said, had “contributed to the efforts of the Church of Cyprus for the repatriation of its stolen spiritual treasures”.

Thousands of religious artefacts went missing from northern Cyprus following Turkey’s invasion of the island and its subsequent partition.

Baptism is “glory in humility”

Today is Theophany Eve according to the Old Calendar, also known as Krstovdan, the day of the Holy Cross in the Serbian tradition, but I think this refers to the fact that catechumens were traditionally baptized on the eve of two major feasts in the early Church: Pascha and Theophany. Hence, today is known as Krstovdan (in Serbian the word baptism is krstenje, coming from the word for Cross=krst).

The following I found on the Catholic blog Vox Nova (here):

For the Christian East, the baptism of Christ is commemorated as one of the most important liturgical feasts of the year. It is certainly one of the most theologically rich celebrations, filled, as it is, with the revelation of several important Christian mysteries. There is much one can say about it – if one looks carefully, one could find the full message of the Gospel revealed upon this one day. For baptism, as St Paul tells us, unites us with the death and resurrection of Jesus; the baptism of Christ, therefore, must present this mystery to us, and with it, all that contained in the Paschal story. Easter is a Trinitarian event, and so, without surprise, the same must be said about Christ’s baptism; indeed, because the Trinity is presented to us in a special way at Christ’s baptism, it is generally known as Theophany, the “appearance of God.” All three persons of the glorious Trinity are present, even as they are involved with Christ’s work on the cross. But, humanly speaking, since the Trinity is revealed at Christ’s baptism, it is said that it is at this point that we are shown the greatest mystery of all, the Tri-personal nature of the Godhead.

“When Thou wast baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity made its appearance. For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee when He called Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of the word. O Christ our God, Who hast appeared and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee! ” (Troparian of Theophany).

Trinitarian theology requires one to understand the proper relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Scripture reading for the day presents the foundations for this theology. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him;  and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt 3:13 – 17). The philosophical and theological implications of this event would slowly emerge, and it would only be after the development of technical vocabulary that the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead could be properly signified (but not captured) by human language. The notion of personal distinctions, so easily accepted by today’s subjective world, was a difficult concept to develop, and only came out of the Trinitarian debates of the ancient world (this shows us the stamp of Christian theology on contemporary life: even for those who have abandoned the Christian faith accept the notion of person established by the Christians as a result of their debates about the Trinity). A son shares with a father the same nature, but they do not share the same subjective dimensions – and so, the Father and the Son, revealed at this event, are eventually said to be homoousios, sharing the same nature, but having subjective distinctions which make them distinct, one from another. These subjective distinctions do not make for objective division – a fact which, when reflected upon, counteracts the mistaken tendencies of different ages. In the ancient world, it was easy to accept objective unity, and subsume subjectivity to it, diminishing the person as a result; in the modern world, the reverse tends to be the case – the person is pushed forward at the expense of objective unity, ending up with subjective individualism that allows for no real substantial human nature to unify us (with human nature is seen merely as a construct to be deconstructed). Yet, we need to realize both dimensions in order to find our proper place in the world. It is only in this fashion that we can also overcome the errors of both monistic and dualistic world views. While we can accept neither of them, we must accept the truth contained in both, meaning, we must accept a third, mediated position between the two, the position exemplified by the Trinity: subjective distinction does not have to end up individualistic (not three Gods), even as objective unity does not have to destroy personal subjects in order for such unity to exist (thus, modalism is to be rejected).

Since Trinitarian debates became the foundation for our understanding of the person, it is not surprising that in this Trinitarian event, not only are we given a revelation of the Divine Trinity, but we are also given a revelation about the human person as well. The relationship between John the Baptism and Jesus Christ presents to us the kind of loving-humility that one will find in perfected humanity. Both had to humble themselves, one to another, in different ways, for different reasons. John the Baptist knew his work was a perfectly human work, with a human end – but he also knew the time would come that God’s grace would be added to the work of baptism, and that the one who would transform the work of baptism into a divine work would be the messiah. It is for this reason he knew he was not Christ’s equal, and was rather confused when Christ came to him asking to be baptized. How could John, whose mission it was to prepare the hearts of the people of Israel for the work of Christ, dare to wash the messiah in his baptism, when he understood everyone needed the baptism which the messiah would later bring? And yet – that is what Christ expected of him. John found himself at a point of crisis, and came out on top – he was able to come to the correct answer, and, despite his confusion, baptize Christ in the Jordan.

John was right to believe that there was something special about the messiah (though the theology of the incarnation was probably not known to him); but only when he came to baptize Christ would he fully understand that the power of authority is known in and through humility. Jesus was the messiah and therefore had far greater authority and glory than John, but Jesus, in and of his human nature, was John’s equal (homoousios). Personal glory does not diminish the natural equality of one human person to another (a dignity guaranteed by the fact that there is only one human nature). Nonetheless, the equal dignity of human persons must not be used to eliminate personal distinction and the authority which comes from these distinctions. There are variations of glory to be found in humanity, and these differences should be respected; but glory, and the authority associated with it, is had and known through humility, through servitude (even as divine glory is known through its kenosis). Jesus’ human glory was fulfilled in his role as the messianic servant; this required him to bring himself to John, to put himself under John, showing that he freely followed the Old Covenant (John, being the last of its prophets). But John, being a prophet of God with real authority given to him, had to understand his proper place in the world, and the humble service he was called to by God for the sake of humanity; that humility was tried when he found himself being asked to baptize Jesus. Would he follow Jesus’ petition (which he should do) despite his lack of understanding why he was being asked to do it, or would he put his own understanding above Jesus’ petition, and deny Jesus his baptism? It is only when we bow our will to God, despite our understanding, that we find God will be able to take our work and perfect it – and our understanding of it (an ancient interpretation of the fall of Satan was that he was given a similar crisis, but, unlike John, he relied upon his own understanding, causing him to disobey God’s command).

John’s glory was revealed in his humility, and in that glory he showed us what is expected of the human person: humility in action. Looking not for glory for ourselves, we must be humble about what we do – leaving room for divine grace to take our work and perfect it. Pride can close us in upon ourselves; false humility can do so as well, since it will be used as an excuse to prevent us from trying to do what it is we feel called to do “I would do it, Lord, except I am not worthy, find someone else.” The reason we say this is our pride does not want to see failure; true humility, on the other hand, will not care – it does not look for success for ourselves, and so will open us to the grace needed for success, even as John’s humility, open to Christ’s will, allowed him to act and baptize Christ. But to what effect? What was the purpose of this event beyond this interesting human drama? What did Christ want to accomplish?

“Make ready, O Zebulon, and prepare thyself, Nephthali. River Jordan, stop flowing and leap for joy at the Lord’s coming for Baptism. Rejoice, O Adam, with our first mother; hide not yourself as in Paradise of old. For seeing us naked He has appeared, to clothe us with our first garment. Christ has appeared, to renew the whole of creation” (Troparion, Forefeast of Theophany). “The river Jordan was once turned back by Elisha’s mantle when Elijah was taken up, and the waters were divided hither and thither. The watery path became dry for him as a type of baptism whereby we cross the flowing stream of life. Christ has appeared in the Jordan to sanctify the waters” (Troparion, Eve of Theophany).

In a fallen mode of being, the world and all that is within it is divided into warring parts, with different fragments of itself fighting against other such fragments, one against another, in what might appear to be a war which will only end when reality manages to finally annihilate itself. Human society mirrors these destructive tendencies of creation, where various persons temporarily join together to fight others, until at last their own fragile, social dimension is shattered and new alliances and hatreds form, making former allies enemies, ready to work for each other’s mutual destruction. But humanity also makes war, as it were, upon the earth; the world and all that is within it is seen as a hostile force to be overcome (less humanity is itself the one who is subjugated). The world is experienced as a terror, its powerful forces capable of great destruction – and without any harmonic, integral unity with humanity, they are open to be manipulated by the forces of chaos and destruction (the daemonic elements of creation); thus humanity finds itself not only at war with the world, but also with the forces of chaos (personal or not, spiritual or not) that seek to control the world for their own hateful purposes. St Symeon the New Theologian faithfully presented this bleak portrait of the world after the fall of Adam in his many works, such as when he wrote : “Do you see how the earth now cursed and deprived of its spontaneous germination, received the transgressor? […] Therefore, indeed, when it saw him leave Paradise, all of the created world which God has brought out of non-being into existence no longer wished to be subject to the transgressor. The sun did not want to shine by day, nor the moon by night, nor the stars to be seen by him. The springs of water did not want to well up for him, nor the rivers to flow. The very air itself thought about contradicting itself and not providing breath for the rebel. The wild beasts and all the animals of the earth saw him stripped of his former glory and, despising him, immediately turned savagely against him. The sky was moving as if to fall justly down on him, and the very earth would not endure bearing him upon its back.” [1] Many of the patristics believed that the fall of humanity left the world open for demonic assault – allowing for Satan and his followers to use and abuse the powers of the earth for their own desires. The world not only became a natural terror, but a supernatural one which left humanity helpless to the powers of evil. The more unbalanced humanity became, the more self-destructive humanity became, the more the world lost its center, and the more the world took on the natures of chaos and fought harshly against its former steward. It is in this light that Christ is seen to restore not only fallen Adam (and humanity in Adam) but the whole of the world – preparing the way for human salvation by sanctifying and purifying the elements of the world themselves. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies“  (Rom. 8:19 – 23). The baptism of Christ was accomplished, in part, for the purification of the elements of the earth, beginning their transfiguration in Christ – the waters of the earth are sanctified in and through the waters of Jordan, even as Adam is sanctified in and through the death and resurrection of Christ. The lost harmony of the earth found a new center in Christ, one which will allow for their eschatological reintegration; the demonic centers of chaos, the demons, prideful in their power, found their authority over the earth overcome by the humble obedience of Christ: humility is stronger than pride, love is stronger than hate.

“Thou hast appeared today to the world, and Thy light, O Lord, has been signed upon us who with full knowledge sing to Thee. Thou hast come, Thou hast appeared, O Unapproachable Light” (Kontakion of Theophany).

Having sanctified the waters, Christ has made them into a vehicle of grace. Baptism is the sacrament of initiation -or, as the ancients would say, the sacrament of enlightenment. We are opened up to grace: in going down into the waters, we die with Christ, and being raised up out of them, we are “born again” – experiencing the resurrection of Christ in our life, and with it, we are opened to theosis, whereupon we will experience (through Christ) the divine life. Baptism is Trinitarian because the new life is Trinitarian – our spiritual life can only be accomplished in and through our complete interaction with all three Divine Persons. The light of truth opens us to the light of the Trinity; in our baptism, we are shown the glory of the Trinity, even as Christ’s initial baptism presents the persons of the Trinity to us. “What are we to learn and be taught by this? To purify ourselves first; to be lowly minded; and to preach only in maturity both of spiritual and bodily stature.”[2] Baptism is about glory in humility, authority in servitude, power in self-abasement. As Jesus said, we must die to ourselves in order to live.

Footnotes

[1] St Symeon the New Theologian, The Ethical Discourses Vol. 1: The Church and The Last Things. Trans. Alexander Golitzin (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 28-9.
[2] St Gregory Nazianzus, “Oration on the Holy Lights,” NPNF 2 (VII),357.

The Circumcision and Political Correctness

Yesterday was the feast of the Circumcision of our Lord, the beginning of the new year according to the church’s calendar. I’m a little late with this post, an interesting commentary on the feast by Fr. Reardon, as usual:

The octave day of Christmas, for most of Christian history, celebrated the memory of Jesus’ circumcision. That historical event was the occasion on which the Savior of the world was given the name “Jesus.”

In recent decades, however, many Christians have stopped referring to this day as the feast of our Lord’s circumcision. These folks—and they appear to be a majority—prefer to call it “the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.”

I am not confident anyone knows, for sure, what impulses prompted that development. Obviously, professional liturgists contrived the business, a fact that might—without further ado—make sane men suspicious of its merits.

Since the intent of the change, as far as I know, was never announced, it is surely legitimate to speculate on the matter. Assuming this freedom, then, let me speculate:

First, the change from “Circumcision” to “Holy Name” continued a growing disposition to “de-historicize” liturgical theology—to prefer defined “doctrines” over historical “events” in the designation of feast days.

I suppose the most egregious example of this preference may be Dom Prosper Gueranger’s 15-volume The Liturgical Year, published back in the mid-19th century. For Dom Gueranger, the crowning feast of the Christian calendar was not Easter but the feast of Corpus Christi. In other words, the historical event of the Resurrection was less significant than the dogma of Transubstantiation.

The profusion of such non-historical feast days among Christians in recent centuries illustrates what I think is a deeper problem: the separation of theology from history. Thus, Christians nowadays, appropriately glad to celebrate the lovely Feast of the Holy Rosary on October 7, are rarely reminded that this feast day commemorates the Battle of Lepanto. If one may speak candidly to the point, Lepanto is not a good memory to lose.

Second, the change from “Circumcision” to “Holy Name” was inspired by what has come to be called “politically correct language.” That is to say, since only boys can be (in our usual sense of the word) circumcised, our informed, up-to-date liturgist felt that little girls would “feel left out” by a feast day that only little boys could “identify with.” Getting rid of “Circumcision ” reflects the same mentality that objects to the word “men” in the Creed and goes to great lengths to make sure that at least one of the acolytes in the service is female. In short, our liturgists seized hold on penis envy about the same time our psychiatrists let go of it.

Third, circumcision was becoming much less common in modern medical practice, so a “Feast of the Circumcision” was no longer relevant. In this respect, our liturgists may have been, in fact, ahead of the game. Not until 1999 did the American Medical Association announce its disillusion with “routine neonatal circumcision” and go on to “support the provision of accurate and unbiased information to parents to inform their choice.” We Christians could hardly have our liturgical calendar implicitly weighing-in on this delicate clinical question, could we, not until the scientific community had made up its mind? We surely didn’t want to observe feast days that failed to convey “unbiased information to parents to inform their choice.”

Fourth, the Feast of the Lord’s Circumcision was felt to be . . . well, just too darned Jewish. And not just Jewish, you see, but Jewish in a really physical way. I mean, really “grossed out” Jewish. All that attention directed at the male sexual organ was felt to be inappropriate to our more enlightened age. What were modern Christians to make of an outdated Middle Eastern covenant signified in an unspeakable series of patriarchal foreskins? Whew, talk about icky combined with out of date!

This “Jewish” character of circumcision was, of course, the whole point of what Christians thought it was appropriate to recall on January 1. If the purpose of December 25 was to announce that God’s Son was “born of a woman,” the intent of January 1 was to proclaim that that Son was also “born under the Law.” And this, moreover, “to redeem those who were under the Law”—which is to say, to confer complete validation on that ancient patriarchal line through which “we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).

To celebrate the Lord’s circumcision—for those of us who still do—is to affirm that the Church is made up of those engrafted onto the ancient stock of Israel, the children of the covenant.