I’m sure there’s something quite bizarre about the title of this post. But it wasn’t so to mediaeval ears, when the Holy Prepuce was a sought after relic apparently held simultaneously by more than one church.
I am pondering tomorrow’s sermon (in case you were wondering!). I see the lectionary gives me the option to keep the circumcision of Jesus hidden away from the majority of worshippers by transferring it to Monday and sticking with the safe theme of Christmas. Anglican worship of the last century, of course, encouraged a focus on the naming of Jesus, and made the ritual a barely mentioned accidental accessory to the thing that really mattered.
(In the process it continued and emphasised the popular misreading of Philippians 2:6-11 as making “Jesus” the name above all names, rather than sharing with him God’s own name, kyrios, ha-Shem, YHWH.)
The Roman Catholic Church has removed it entirely from the calendar and replaced it with the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, as – it would seem – have some Anglicans. Much as I honour the Mother of God, this seems to me to be celebrating the theological cart while ignoring the historical horse: replacing the mess of incarnational specifics with the glory of thematic theotokia.
It seems that for all the emphasis on Jesus the Jew, there’s a limit to how much we’ll reflect on his Jewishness, and the sacred snip of the holy foreskin is just that bit too Jewish for a nice well brought-up church’s table manners. It is, however, perhaps rather an important plank in understanding Jesus as Torah observant, even if he engages in disputes about exactly what Torah observance entails.
(In fact, it might be a rather important political theology for interfaith relationships in the light of the rationalist attempt to ban circumcision which some Jewish people in the West see – along with kashrut and ritual slaughter – as a looming problem for them as for Islam.)
The earliest Christian text I know of to make anything more of the Circumcision than a bare historic fact is the Arabic Infancy Gospel.
And the time of circumcision, that is, the eighth day, being at hand, the child was to be circumcised according to the law. Wherefore they circumcised Him in the cave. And the old Hebrew woman took the piece of skin; but some say that she took the navel-string, and laid it past in a jar of old oil of nard. And she had a son, a dealer in ointments, and she gave it to him, saying: See that you do not sell this jar of ointment of nard, even although three hundred denarii should be offered you for it. And this is that jar which Mary the sinner bought and poured upon the head and feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, which thereafter she wiped with the hair of her head.
The writer of this anonymous apocryphon makes a fascinating narrative connection between the shedding of the infant’s blood and the shedding of the adult’s. (Those who suspect the possibility that circumcision may in some respects function as a substitute for child-acrifice will find this even more interesting.) The oil that anoints him for burial (I am assuming the author will have conflated all the accounts of the anointing of Jesus.) is the oil that has marinaded his foreskin for thirty years. The vulnerability of infant flesh to the mohel’s knife is the same vulnerability of adult flesh to the nails and the spear. In the circumcision of the child, the death of the adult is foretold. This child is born to shed his life-blood from beginning to end, and even here at the cradle, the grave casts its shadow.