Monday, 22 April 2013


The Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus

God said to Abraham, ‘… Every uncircumcised male, everyone who has not had the flesh of his foreskin circumcised, shall be cut off from the kin of his father. He has broken my covenant.’ Genesis 17 v14

We mark the feast of the circumcision of Jesus, but we generally don’t think much about it. Perhaps many people don’t really know what circumcision is, so that’s a place to start. Circumcision is the cutting round and removal of the natural covering that protects the sensitive end of a man’s or a boy’s penis. Jews and Muslims carry out the painful procedure, without anaesthetic, on baby boys. For them it is a requirement of their religion but many families in USA do the same, and it used to be common in England too. Though it originated much earlier, Genesis tells how Abraham carries out the operation on himself and his household as a mark of his and his descendants’ covenant with God. It is therefore strictly speaking a primitive tribal religious mutilation. It carries obvious physical risks, and many men who have had it done to them feel it has diminished both their self-esteem and their sexual pleasure. It is of course not a requirement of Christianity, and indeed the admission of men who had not been circumcised was one of the things that distinguished the very early church from the Jewish community around it, despite the fact that as far as we know Jesus had expressed no view about circumcision.
                Circumcision is an extreme expression of one the features of religion that distinguishes it from faith. Faith is what enables us to flourish as the unique and amazing individuals we are, and in doing so makes us see and want to nurture the unique and amazing individuals we meet, sometimes at great cost to ourselves. Religion asserts that such flourishing and such nurturing, desirable as they are, are respectively the gift and the (often unfulfilled) demand of a deity who stands in relation to us as an ancient emperor-god, whose favour must therefore be sought by the sacrifice of what we do not want to lose and by the observance of practices whose meaning we do not understand. It is a characteristic of religion that it requires its followers to do these things for no rational reason. It’s no good trying to find logical reasons for abstaining from pork, or for circumcising boys, or for any other truly religious requirements; if there were such reasons, knowing them would instantly prevent these practices from having a religious value. When religious people say that this should be done or that abstained from, we can ask, ‘Why?’ If they offer some rational reply, we can weigh it up and decide whether we agree. If they don’t – if, that is, the reply is a version of ‘Because God says so’ – we can ignore them, and ignore them for clear theological reasons firmly anchored in the Jesus tradition. Jesus may not have said anything about circumcision, but he did say that ‘the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath’. Religious observance needs to be able to justify itself to us.
                But there is no bright line between religion and faith. Although Jesus and our own experience repeatedly refute the religious claim that faith is not available except through religion, some of the tools by which faith develops and expresses itself do come in an effective religious version. Discipline is one example. Life, as we soon learn, does not deal fairly with us; misfortune and good fortune do not always come to those who would seem to deserve them. Yet equally we notice that some kinds of people tend to avoid misfortune and to enjoy good fortune. Part of what can carry us through misfortune and make it more likely that we will enjoy good fortune is discipline, the willingness and ability to stick at what is difficult. Where do we learn to do this? In many places of course – sports training is an excellent place to learn it. But we can also learn it through some of the traditional disciplines of religion, such as fasting or keeping silence or even wearing uncomfortable clothing for a time. The thing to notice is that these practices have a point for us; we do not do them because we think it pleases some tyrannical God-out-there, even if similar things are done by those who do.
                Another example is ritual. We find it very natural and helpful to use ritual in our lives. We mark births, marriages and deaths, and even birthdays, with ritual; we mark significant moments in our community’s history, and often their anniversaries, with ritual; we graduate with ritual, and so on and on. Often though not necessarily these rituals are presented in a religious setting and are given a religious rationale. So, for example, the Church has long insisted that infant baptism initiates a baby into a Christian commitment, but for many people it is really much more the celebration of the arrival of a new family member, and perhaps a commitment to seeing the baby as a unique individual, marked formally by giving him or her a name of their own. Yet the religious trappings matter to us because they help us to distinguish a significant ritual event from what would otherwise be only a celebratory party. We used to speak about the ‘solemnisation of matrimony’, and solemnisation is exactly what religious ritual helps us do for many moments of significance in our lives. There might be – in fact there are – other ways of solemnising events than using specifically religious ritual. But again the vital point is that ritual is something we do for us, to help enrich our experience of life.
                 Slicing off a baby boy’s foreskin no more increases the chances of human flourishing than does female genital mutilation; it is clearly on the religion side of the blurry line between it and faith. What we might profitably use this feast of the circumcision for is to ask ourselves whether we understand how, or at least see that, our religious observance and practices are contributing to our flourishing and developing our faith. If we don’t, perhaps we need to reconsider them, as the early church reconsidered, and ultimately rejected, the requirement for its male members to be circumcised.

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