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A Holy 'Yes'

The Circumcision of Christ BCP

01 January 2006 00:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

The history of today's Feast of the Circumcision of Christ dates back to the middle of the 6thC in Gaul. By the 9th Century the festival was observed in Rome. I guess the Church was nervous about observing a Christian festival following so pagan and raucous a night, (though sober in Mayfair I feel confident!) and that explains why this feast came relatively late into our calendar. These days at New Year, the Roman Church celebrates Mary Mother of God, Our Lady the theotokos who herself undergoes the rites of purification which S. Luke describes, if we read on from this morning's gospel. But we focus on circumcision and on the naming of Jesus.

Two responses are suggested to us regarding news of great joy…a response of wonder, and a response which ponders, and our own Christian identity needs both these elements. The wonder of the shepherds, and the pondering of Mary. The eager excitement and need to tell, as well as the measured prayerful consideration of God's actions leading to wisdom.

Shepherds were dubious and somewhat despised characters of their day, and these here are garrulous and excited, and in a spin over the angel's message. Rough and ready shepherds who in all likelihood wouldn't usually observe the Jewish law, are the very ones to whom the revelation, the good news of the incarnation is given…the very first evangelists if you like. They heard great things, and on arrival, the sign is only of an ordinary baby, yet still they persisted. We must suppose that Mary too wondered at what she was told ('marvelled' is a better translation of the Greek), just as all the townsfolk of Bethlehem received the news in astonished silence…but only she ponders. After all this is 'breaking news' in S. Luke's account of the nativity, this is the first time Mary is told of joy…of a Saviour (a 'Deliverer' or Messiah)…and that on earth will come PEACE as God's gift…peace as God's favour to those with whom he is pleased. Previously, at the annunciation, she was troubled when told she was to conceive and give birth to the Son of the Most High, who would be given the throne of David…she was told to name him Jesus, and also that 'of his kingdom there will be no end'. The plot thickens now, as she hears of joy which will come to all the people, and on earth PEACE.

Her disposition leaves her open, open to pondering carefully the words of ordinary people as well as pondering the divine initiative. She takes it ALL in, in her attentiveness. Her 'pondering' on all that comes to pass, appears to be her habitual response to mystery. The shepherds fully grasp the import of what they had seen and heard, and return to their flocks glorifying and praising God, just as Mary had done in her Magnificat after the disclosures of the Annunication… 'he who is mighty has done great things for me'. The movement of God in any life seems to issue in song and an inability to contain the great things he does for us. It has to come out.

Today's feast is the first festival of the shedding of the precious blood of Christ, and preachers down the ages have highlighted and linked the shedding of blood at the start, and at the consummation of Jesus' life. Jesus was a normal Jewish baby - accepting the customs and requirements as laid down, like John the Baptist to whose circumcision S. Luke refers earlier in his gospel. For Jews circumcision is comparable to baptism for us Christians. Circumcision is a sign of God's covenant with Israel, of course, but also of his promise to bless Abraham and his seed forever. Come the eighth day and the need for circumcision, this baby is no special case…being found in normal human form, he humbled himself and became obedient. Jesus is obedient to Jewish law and accepts it. Just as he accepts the ultimate trials and agony which are the destiny of his earthly life. Good news for us too, accepting and welcoming us, just as we are. There is a catalogue of divine love shown through acceptance, accepting and forgiving the stupidity of his disciples, accepting the narrow-mindedness of the Jews of his day, accepting the aggression and nastiness of the Pharisees, the infidelity of S. Peter, and accepting even the betrayal of Judas.

I ended my last sermon at S. Bartholomew's Stamford Hill with words from Dag Hammarskjold 'For all that has been, thanks. For all that is yet to come, yes'. These seem good sentiments to begin a new year in a new parish as well.

New Year with its good intentions and the making of resolutions, is a good time to embrace the spirit of willing acceptance, a holy YES…not only to the joys and excitements of the year ahead, but Yes also to our prosaic duties and obligations…the dreary commitments to be honoured, those Christmas thank-you letters and emails, those aches and pains and coughs and colds (which these days are invariably over-dramatised as so-called 'flu), those colleagues whom we can hardly bear but in whom we are called to see Christ, and with whom we must work daily, the oddities and habits of difficult relatives, and above all else our duty to love and honour the aged and infirm.

Today we ask and we offer. We ask blessing, and offer God the year for his purposes and to his glory. Jesus is the name by whom God's blessing comes to us. Jesus, a name which means 'God is salvation'. And so again, 'For all that has been, thanks. For all that is yet to come, YES.' May this year ahead, 2006, indeed be for us 'the acceptable year of the Lord', as we seek to bring the Lord Jesus to birth in our lives, and in our world.

Fr. Roderick Leece


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