January 1, New Year’s Day, repeatedly blinks and flashes on the secular calendar like a giant reset button. It’s the opportunity and the invitation to start over and start fresh.
On the Christian calendar, this day sits roughly in the middle of the twelve-day Christmas season – roughly for more than one reason. In some traditions, this day is celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision. This is, after all, the eighth day of Christmas, and Jewish male children are circumcised and receive their names eight days after birth.
Most contemporary liturgical calendars, however, call this day something else; they obscure that genital wounding by calling it instead the “Feast of the Holy Name.”
Well, that got tidied up pretty quickly…
I have to wonder: Does renaming this day reflect an ongoing discomfort with the genitals of Jesus or even acknowledging he had genitals at all or about human sexuality more generally or perhaps how easily bodies can be wounded? Probably a bit of each.
This somewhat peculiar moment in Jesus’ life seems particularly appropriate as we enter a new year in a deeply divided and anxious country. It matters to suppose that the divine Word of God is manifest not only in all the peculiar things specific to a particular human body but also in all the complex and fleshy entanglements of a human society.
Circumcision, as early Christians argued, confirmed the genuine humanity of Jesus, but it did more than this; it marked – quite literally carved – a boundary of identity, specifically a Jewish male identity in a province of the Roman Empire.
As theologian Graham Ward puts it, theology always entails a “cultural politics.”*
But we need to say far more than that and much more directly: it’s a cultural politics that comes with a wounding of the flesh.
As we’ve been seeing for some time now, a renewed wave of identity politics is sweeping across this country, fueling a severe fragmentation of our society, revealing painful wounds and old scars that many carry on their own bodies.
Two of the more recent examples: plans are underway for a neo-Nazi march in a small town in Montana later this month, quite specifically targeting the town’s Jewish residents. And this past week, in Chandler, Arizona, a Jewish family erected a menorah on their front lawn – this being the season of Chanukah – and someone refashioned it into a swastika.
These hostile if not hateful sentiments are not new, but their expressions are newly visible in a cultural climate that now seems so much more tolerant of these things than it ever should be.
We must not let this become normal.
Given the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism, there has never been a good time to brush aside the Jewishness of Jesus – erasing circumcision from the name of a Christian feast day risks doing precisely that. But we need to say much more than that given the cultural climate right now in the United States.
Christians need to be proactive and vocal about our indebtedness to Judaism, about our ancient though certainly contested kinship with Jews, about the people of Israel living under the first-century imperial occupation of Rome as the very location for God to dive headlong into the beautiful and messy poignancy and bloody cultural politics of human life.
This is, I believe, just the beginning of the kind of courageous witness Christian communities will need to offer in the weeks and months ahead – about ethnicity, about race, about religion, about sexuality and gender – all the intertwined complexities of what it means to be human together and in which the Word of God was and is pleased to dwell, in the flesh.
The familiarity of these seasonal stories at this time of year might still inspire us for the challenging work ahead, especially if we hear these stories in all their scandalous peculiarity. Later this week we’ll celebrate the Epiphany – Persian astrologers presenting extravagant gifts to a Jewish baby born in poverty. It’s hard to imagine a more counter-cultural story for this American moment.
It has always mattered and it’s soon going to matter quite directly for Christians to insist that bodies matter. And I believe the present moment demands as much specificity as possible in our insistence – no mere embrace of bodies in general or some abstract theory of the goodness of embodiment will do. As a short list, we must insist on this:
- Black flesh and bodies matter.
- The flesh and bodies of migrants and refugees matter.
- The flesh and body matter of the eight-year old transgender boy who was just kicked out of the cub scouts.
- The flesh and bodies of the Native Americans at Standing Rock matter as they seek to protect the flesh and body of Earth.
- The flesh and bodies of other-than-human animals with whom we share this planet, they matter, too, as equally the cause of God’s ceaseless delight – they, after all, were among the very first witnesses of Jesus’ birth in a barn.
I return to the Eucharistic Table week after week in my little Episcopal Church for many reasons. One of them is to find the courage to love in a world of hate, and to remember (again and again and again) that my own flesh and body matter.
In many ways, the Eucharist is my weekly “reset button” for my own life, starting over and starting fresh by encountering divine love once again in the flesh.
Perhaps on this Feast of the Holy Name we can reset the calendar by remembering the holy names God uses for us, for all of us – names like Delightful, Cherished, Beloved.
* Graham Ward, “On the Politics of Embodiment and the Mystery of All Flesh,” in The Sexual Theologian, edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood