Monday, January 01, 2007

Circumcising the New Year

Somebody who had figured out some hidden codes in the Bible had suggested that the End of All Things would come in 2006. I guess the Final Conflagration is not all it’s cracked up to be; I hardly noticed it. More importantly for us, today is the feast of the circumcision of Christ and the feast of St Basil the Great, and it is the first day of the new year on the civil calendar. I think I will have to offer the honor due to St Basil today simply by celebrating the Liturgy that bears his name, and by inviting him to be present with us in our worship of the newborn Savior. I will then focus on the mystery of Christ and also that of the new year—not because a civil holiday has so much influence on our liturgical life, but because it points to the mystery of time, which is important, and to a new beginning, which I think we can all use in our own spiritual lives.

Certainly what we are celebrating about the Lord was something new for Him. He had existed for all eternity as God, pure Spirit, the divine Son of God the Father. Suddenly something new happened—He entered the world of time and space, not only with his creative and sustaining presence as He had from the beginning of creation, but entered into it as part of it, as a human being among other human beings, with all our limitations and weaknesses except sin. And today we celebrate a rather new—and somewhat painful—experience for Him as He endured circumcision in the flesh. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council found this mystery altogether too politically (and perhaps devotionally) incorrect, so they completely suppressed the feast in the Roman rite. But we need not meditate imaginatively on the physical act of circumcision, but rather on its meaning.

Two important things happened with the circumcision of Christ. First, He was given his name, Jesus. (The Gospel today also includes the finding of Jesus in the temple, just so the reading can be more than one verse long—which is all Luke gives us for his circumcision and naming.) The Son of God received the name which the angel communicated to Mary and Joseph—Jesus, meaning “The Lord is Savior.” The angel had already told the shepherds a week earlier that a Savior was born, but now this mystery is made more public, official, in the context of a wider group of the people of God. This Child is the salvation of the world, and He bears the name that proclaims his mission wherever He goes.

The name of Jesus is dear to all Christians, especially Eastern Christians who pray the Jesus Prayer. For Scripture says that to call on the name of the Lord is the first step toward salvation, and that God abides in those who confess Jesus as the Son of God, as we do every time we pray the Jesus Prayer.

But it is not only the naming of the Child that is significant here. His circumcision is an act which declares his membership in the chosen people, and which thus makes Him eligible to enter into a covenant relationship with God. It may seem ironic that Christ, eternally one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, had to go under the knife to be considered a member of the people with whom God had made a covenant. But since Jesus came to save us as one of us, offering the sacrifice of Himself as both God and man—the only way to effectively atone for our sins as true Mediator between God and man—He also was formally received into the people of the covenant, so that, as one of them, He could eventually inaugurate the New Covenant at the Last Supper and on the Cross, sealed by his Precious Blood, the first drops of which He shed at his circumcision.

Christ did not take any shortcuts in coming to save us. He did not simply materialize as a 30-year old man and then begin to preach and eventually give his life. No, He took the long, slow, painful way of the whole of human existence, being born a baby, growing up in the long process of childhood and adolescence. I’m sure He was a model teenager, yet the Gospel shows that He was already asserting his independence when He was twelve. But there are two important points to be made about that. His primary obedience was to God the Father—whom He never disobeyed for a moment—and He explained this to Mary and Joseph when they had assumed that his not returning immediately with them was a bit of childish thoughtlessness. But then the Gospel makes clear that He subsequently did return with them and was obedient to them. His primary obedience was to the Father, and this had to be made clear to them, yet it was his Father’s will that He be obedient to Mary and Joseph, so all of them were able to live in peace and love with each other.

St Paul brings the mystery of Christ’s circumcision into our own lives with a spiritual interpretation in the Letter to the Colossians (2:8-12). First of all, He affirms the divinity of Christ: “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Thus He who was circumcised into the old covenant is fully able to inaugurate the new. After Paul says the fullness of God is in Christ, he declares that in Christ we have come to the fullness of life—for true and lasting life can only be from God. As Paul insists in other places as well, it is only in Christ that the grace and blessing of God come to us. Paul goes on to say that we were circumcised spiritually in the circumcision of Christ. There’s a sort of play on words when he says that we have, by a spiritual circumcision, “put off the body of flesh.” A bit of flesh is cut off from the body in a physical circumcision, but the “flesh” that Paul is speaking about here is a spiritual reality—for the “flesh” is that entire set of attitudes and behaviors that manifest opposition to the word and will of God, that are wholly “of this world” and contrary to the grace of the Holy Spirit. That is why he could say: “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). So we need to go under the spiritual knife of repentance and grace, of faith in Christ and obedience to his will, in order to cut off the flesh and all its harmful influence.

Thus armed with fresh determination to put off the flesh and put on Christ, we enter the year of our Lord 2007. Looking back over 2006, I recall a word I received at the beginning of the year, that it would be a year of afflictions, but that the Lord would grant me grace and deliver me from them all. It seems to me that to a very great extent, that is exactly what happened, and it became a year of blessing as much as of affliction. He also said he wanted me to enter a new land that He would show me. While I’m still in the same geographical land, I began to receive, at the end of the year, a sort of new vision of life—and God’s omnipresence therein—which I hope to enter more deeply, and about which I hope to bear witness in some detail in this new year. For that I will need much more grace and wisdom and more profound spiritual perception.

But for now let us give thanks for the graces of the past year—and even for the afflictions, insofar as through them we may have gained a bit a wisdom and strength to persevere in fidelity—and let us repent of our failures to live as men and women of the New Covenant at all times. The Lord is the One who makes all things new, and with each new year we can have hope for interior renewal, cleansing, and growth. We do not know what will happen in our volatile world this year, but we do know that we can trust Emmanuel, our ever-present Lord and Savior, not only to guide and protect us amid the storms, but also to enable us to make a positive contribution to the good of the world, to the salvation of souls, to the advancement of peace and reconciliation on all levels.

So let not “Happy New Year” be merely a customary or empty wish, but an invitation to seek and find true happiness in the love of God, who sent his only Son as man to shed his blood that we might be saved. Let our happiness be in Him who is preparing a Paradise of joy for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.