Posts Tagged 'circumcision'

For Feb. 8, 2015: Absalom Jones

The Reading                                                                 Isaiah 61:1-4

The first part of the book of Isaiah pronounced God’s judgment on Israel for oppressing the poor: her kings were to be cut down and her people exiled in Babylon. Isaiah 61:1-4, fittingly for the commemoration of Absalom Jones, calls the despondent returnees to rebuild and restore shattered Jerusalem—and to rejoice in freedom.

The Response                                                               Psalm 137:1-6

Psalm 137 laments the exile in Babylon that Isaiah prophesied for Israel. The oppressors’ demand for songs and mirth has echoes in later history: slaves are often not even allowed the dignity of grief when that conflicts with their masters’ demand to be amused.

The Epistle                                                                    Galatians 5:1-5

By the third century BC, Celts or Gauls from western Europe have invaded and settled in the part of modern Turkey that is called Galatia. Can these gentiles follow Christ without undergoing circumcision? Paul’s answer is yes: Christ has freed us from bondage to the Law—and that means all of us.

The Gospel                                                                     John 15:12-15

John 15:12-15 is part of Jesus’ discourse leading up to the night of betrayal. We read verse 12 as a command to love, but the Greek conjunction ἴνα, which is translated ‘that’ here[1] and in John 13:34,[2] is more often translated ‘in order that’—in which case Jesus may be telling us to do as he does so that we may indeed love as he loves.

 

Further thoughts

Feb. 13 is the feast day of Absalom Jones, priest, in the Episcopal calendar. He was born in 1746 on the Wynkoop plantation in Sussex, Delaware. Too frail for the fields, he was a house slave. He bought a reading book with the pennies his owner’s guests gave him as tips and cadged reading lessons whenever possible. When Absalom was sixteen, his owner, Benjamin Wynkoop, decided to give up the plantation he had inherited for commerce; Wynkoop sold the rest of Absalom’s family and took Absalom to Philadelphia, which featured a growing community of freedmen and a Quaker community devoted to abolition. Absalom clerked in Wynkoop’s store by day and went to one of the Quakers’ black schools by night.

The first marriage of 1770 recorded at St Peter’s Anglican Church was of “Absalom (negro slave to Mr Wynkoop) and Mary (Do. to S. King)”;[3] both owners worshiped there. King agreed to manumit Mary—to sell her her freedom—and Absalom composed an appeal to the Quakers for loans and donations for the purchase, so their children would be freeborn. He worked from dawn till dark for Wynkoop, and till past midnight for wages in order to pay the debt. When the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777, Wynkoop left town with the other patriots; Absalom could have gained his freedom by working for the redcoats, but instead he kept the store going.[4] In 1778, Absalom and Mary paid off her debt and Absalom requested his own manumission. Wynkoop declined, and kept declining repeated requests until 1784. It should give any 21st-century Episcopalian pause to reflect that Wynkoop was a devout churchman, vestryman and warden of St Peter’s and Christ Church Philadelphia and a generous donor—of money earned by the toil of his slave and the sale of slave-produced goods such as molasses and rum.[5] When at last Absalom was manumitted and registered as a freedman, he and Mary took the surname Jones; he continued working for Wynkoop for wages.

Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, as lay preachers at St George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, increased the black membership by ten times; the vestry responded by adding a blacks-only balcony and, one Sunday in November 1786, a sexton interrupted Jones and others at prayer to drag them up to it. The group walked out of St George’s and never returned. Jones and Allen founded the Free African Society, a benevolent organization that gave rise to the African Church in 1792. When yellow fever swept Philadelphia in 1793, causing many whites to flee, Jones and Allen and their followers tirelessly nursed the sick irrespective of race. Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but Jones and his followers turned to the Episcopal Church in 1794 and were accepted as the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas (though not without restrictions). Jones was ordained as a deacon in 1795 and as a priest in 1802. In 1808, and partly through his efforts in circulating petitions to Congress, he witnessed the end of the slave trade into the US, though not the end of slavery itself. He died on Feb. 13, 1818.

Absalom Jones undoubtedly knew Psalm 137 by heart, and its woes were much of his life. In his dignity, determination, courage, and love, however, he carried himself as a friend to God and humans and he demonstrated to whites who thought they knew what a slave was worth what a black man unfettered could do and be. At times captive, brokenhearted, and mourning, he nevertheless lived out the call of Isaiah 61:1-4 as proclaimer of liberty, oak of righteousness, and repairer of devastations. The Episcopal Church must be honest about the slaveholding in its past, and we are all called to recognize our own prejudices—but what better way to honor the memory of the Rev’d Absalom Jones than to follow in his footsteps to bless and liberate our brethren and the world, including ourselves?

 

[1] D. Mark Davis, “Commands To Love, Or Commands In Order To Love?” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2012/05/commands-to-love-or-commands-in-order.html, 7 May 2012. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[2] D. Mark Davis, “Commanding Love,” Left Behind and Loving It, http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/04/commanding-love.html, 23 April 2013. Accessed 4 February 2015.

[3] “Historical Documents: Absalom Jones’s Marriage to Mary,” Africans in America, Part 3, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3h93.html, no date. Accessed 7 February 2015.

[4] Nash, Gary B. “Becoming Free.” Chapter of Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988), p. 68. Accessed 6 February 2015.

[5] Safford, Timothy B. “Who Owned Absalom Jones?” Sermon, 13 February 2008. Web site of Christ Church Philadelphia, http://www.christchurchphila.org/Welcome-to-the-Christ-Church-Website/Who-We-Are/Sermons/Sermons/202/month–200802/vobid–678/. Accessed 7 February 2015.

For Dec. 28, 2014: Holy Name of Jesus

The Reading                                                            Numbers 6:22-27

The book of Numbers, named for the first census of the Israelites after their departure from Egypt, tells their journey from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula to the land of Moab on the east side of the Jordan. Here the Lord explains how the priests of Aaron are to bless God’s people: by putting God’s name on them.

The Response                                                           Psalm 8

Psalm 8 responds to God’s activity in Creation with wonder and praise. The God whose Word creates (as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it) “galaxies, suns, the planets in the courses, and this fragile Earth” is the God who bends low to you and me—and the God who calls us to care just as tenderly for Earth and its resources.

The Epistle                                                               Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 may be a very ancient hymn of the Church. This luminous passage names Jesus as God and human, humbled and then exalted, with the Name to which every knee shall bow as we saints below join in praise with the saints above, world without end.

The Gospel                                                               Luke 2:15-21

As Luke tells it, angels impart the great good news of the birth of the Savior to shepherds, and these rough outsiders hasten to adore him. Eight days later, in accordance with Jewish law (Genesis 17:9-14), the boy is circumcised and given the name Jesus, as the angel had told Mary in Luke 1:31 (and Joseph in Matthew 1:21).

 

Further thoughts

The feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is celebrated on January 1, eight days after Christmas Day; the timing reflects the practice of circumcising and formally naming a baby Jewish boy on the eighth day of his life in accordance with the Torah. This feast day raises some interesting issues in naming and inclusion.

In both tellings of the Annunciation, the angel tells one of the child’s earthly parents to name him Jesus. Matthew 1:21 adds a bit: the angel says, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The comment makes sense in Hebrew: the name would be Yeshua, a shortening of Yehoshua, which combines the YHW– element that refers to the Lord with a verb that means ‘deliver, save, rescue’. The name was then rendered into Greek (in which there is no “sh” sound, and the letter y is used solely as a vowel) as Iēsous Ιησουσ, with an –s suffix to make it masculine gender and a long e pronounced as in Spanish. Latin adopted this as Iesus.

As lower-case scripts emerged in Europe, a “swash” form of the letter I, with a curly tail, came into use at the beginning of a word before a vowel, yielding the occasional spelling Jesus. This letter J was not a fully separate letter in English until the 17th century, however, so the first edition of the King James Bible (1611) still spells the name Iesus. By that time, the French shift in pronunciation from “y” to “soft g” before a vowel, in progress as of the beginning of the twelfth century, had become standard in English. All that remained to produce the current pronunciation of Jesus was the Great Vowel Shift that has given English long e the pronunciation it has today.

Jesus has two other titles of interest: Messiah and Christ. We tend to think of Messiah as meaning ‘savior’, but the Aramaic word meshiach, borrowed into Greek and then Roman as messias, means ‘anointed’. It turns out that Christ means the same thing: it comes from Greek khristos ‘anointed one’. Jesus was first called crist (no H, no capitalization) in English no later than 830 AD; speakers of Old English were likelier to call Jesus Hæland ‘savior’ or more literally ‘healer’. Of course, none of those is a name he was given at birth.

Circumcision according to the Torah marks a boy as fully a Jew, a member of the community. It also marks Jesus as fully human and submissive to the Law. The apostle Paul—also a Jew who had been circumcised—concluded that circumcision was not necessary for Gentiles. Instead, what marks a fellow Christian as “ours” is anointing at baptism and at confirmation. The ritual embraces those of us who are not equipped for circumcision as well as all who are not Jews. This shift thus emphasizes the extension of grace through Jesus to all peoples. But what if the shift also stands as a reminder to me to rise to the challenge of being as nearly Christ as I can to all people, seeing each person through Jesus’ eyes and loving each one as “ours”?

For July 28, 2013: Proper 12, Year C

The Reading            Hosea 1:2-10

The prophet Amos over the last two weeks condemned Israel in terrifying terms for defrauding the poor. The book of Hosea is even more shocking and graphic: at God’s command, Hosea tells us, he marries a woman who will cheat on him flagrantly, to symbolize Israel’s faithlessness—and, eventually God’s capacity for forgiveness.

The Response            Psalm 85

“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”

The Epistle            Colossians 2:6-19

The church at Galatia, with its mix of Gentiles and converted Jews, seems to have experienced a good deal of friction about how to eat and drink and celebrate rightly as a Christian. Paul reminds the Galatians and us that what matters is that we are made right with God through the sacrifice of Jesus: the rest is human thinking.

The Gospel            Luke 11:1-13

“‘How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’”

 

 

Further thoughts

The story of Hosea and his bride is difficult to read. The command by God Almighty to find a whore, or at least a woman who will certainly both sleep around on Hosea and make sure he knows all about it, and marry her surely contravenes both Talmudic law and the considerable weight of what custom has to say about the purity of the woman one marries. The language is incredibly alienating: the wife is depicted as not merely unfaithful but repugnant, and the children are given abusive names that signify brutality (Jezreel was the site of Naboth’s house that King Ahaz coveted and it was where Ahaz and Jezebel were killed), callousness, and unwantedness. It has been suggested that verse 10, which reverses the second and third children’s names, was added by a later hand; this verse takes some of the sting out of what precedes, but we’re still left with a blameless man holding his nose while condescending to marry someone that no sane man should want.

The epistle and gospel make a much bigger shift. The reading from Colossians depicts the sacrifice of Jesus as the product not of God’s contempt but of God’s love; the benefits of whatever Jesus underwent in this world are extended to us if we simply believe in his Name—including a key ritual, circumcision, for which the female body has no good analogue—and everything else is just window dressing prescribed by humans. In the reading from Luke, Jesus’ disciples probably expect an arcane and stately ritual when they ask to be taught to pray; they want something that marks them off from others as insiders. Instead, Jesus gives a format that a two-year-old could master in which God Almighty is “Daddy” and the “we” includes the whole of God’s beloved world.

For March 10, 2013: 4 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Joshua 5:9-12

The book of Joshua relates how Israel’s obedience under Joshua and God’s faithfulness led to the good life in the land of Canaan. Today’s reading begins after Joshua has obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males born since the flight from Egypt: now that they can keep passover, God’s abundance begins to flow.

The Response            Psalm 32

The Epistle            2 Corinthians 5:16-21

In the reading from Joshua, we heard God in Canaan proclaim an end to Israel’s disgrace. In notoriously lawless first-century Corinth Paul picks up the theme, but with a twist: we have a clean slate by God’s grace—and with it, orders to share this great good news of reconciliation by all means through Christ with the whole world.

The Gospel            Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

 

Further thoughts

The book of Joshua was almost certainly written centuries after Joshua’s death, to contrast Israel’s obedience under Joshua and God’s faithfulness with Israel’s later disobedience that led to exile in Babylon in the 7th century BC. Today’s reading from the book of Joshua recounts the return of Israel to Canaan after that forty-year walk through the back country with very boring rations—manna and the occasional quail—while the whiners who left Egypt died off. Now the men born during the hike are finally on Canaanite soil and newly circumcised, so all are ritually able to celebrate Passover, and on the next day they get their first taste of real bread and real grain.  The lesson is clear: Good things will happen to me if I obey God, and bad things happen when I don’t. That seems fair: obedience from one side, goodies from the other. Psalm 32 tweaks the message a little: bad things happen when I fail to admit what I’ve done wrong, but confessing is itself enough to begin to bring relief. The psalm promises, though, that the faithful will always end up all right, so it’s still fair.

In the second epistle to the Corinthians, things get turned around. Paul tells elsewhere of trying his formidably pharisaical best to be God’s good little boy, only to discover that even his best falls far short. Instead, he says, what gets him and me reconciled to God is God’s love, unconditionally. That’s good for me. But then I think of Them—the people who’ve disrespected me or hurt me, even intentionally: God’s love, unconditionally, is what reconciles them, too, and they are no less entitled to it than I. How fair is that?

As to Jesus’ parable we’re often told that the father is God and that the sons are us, with the elder son as the one not to be. I think it’s more complicated than that. The elder son lives right and is interested in fairness: can I see those traits in him, or in someone I’ve labeled “holier-than-thou”, without dismissing them as sheer cussedness, and can I emulate him when it’s appropriate? The younger son has materially damaged the family economy and his relationship at least with his brother, and it’s not clear whether his change of attitude is genuine repentance or calculation, but he at least has the sense not to keep hiding: can I accept both forgiveness and the need to repair the damage I’ve done, and can I call myself out when I’m unauthentic without banishing myself? The father has been a fool, perhaps: can I run as enthusiastically and unilaterally as he without leading someone else into temptation?

More to the point, can I balance all three roles in myself? Can I love justice without using it as a bludgeon? Can I ask for what I need while not taking undue advantage? Can I respond as unconditionally as God to the hungers, needs, and nakednesses even of the Them I would prefer to avoid?

It isn’t fair, no: it’s Love.

For Feb. 24, 2013: 2 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Genesis 15:1-12,17-18

In today’s first reading, God promises to childless Abram uncountably many descendants and the land between Egypt and Mesopotamia. This promise is sealed by a ceremony familiar to Abram: the parties to a contract would cut an animal in half and walk between the pieces declaring that, should they fail to do their part, they themselves ought to be cut in half. Here the fire pot and the torch represent God.

The Response            Psalm 27

The Epistle            Philippians 3:17-4:1

In the epistle today, Paul warns the Philippians about “enemies of the cross of Christ”. He is referring to those who insisted that Christianity means keeping the law of Moses, especially with regard to food and circumcision. Paul disagrees vigorously: God’s grace is for all of us believers, just as we are.

The Gospel            Luke 13:31-35

Further thoughts

Woven into today’s three readings are the concepts of promises and signs. In Genesis, old Abram receives two extravagant promises from God: he will possess the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea from Mesopotamia in the north to Egypt in the south, and he will have so many descendants he can’t count them. God seals his part of the deal by “walking” between the animals cut in half. Some years later, God extends the covenant and has Abram—now Abraham—seal his part of the deal through circumcising himself and all the males with him, and it is after that that Abram’s wife Sarai finally bears him a son. From that day to this, circumcision has been universal among Jewish men as a mark of their special covenantal relationship with the God of Abraham, along with the complex of special dietary laws that we know as “kosher”.

But in the epistle, along comes Paul to announce that neither the dietary restrictions nor the physical circumcision work to make us righteous; what’s more, bragging about what one is or isn’t or what one does or doesn’t do to be righteous is not only missing the point, it might even be poisoning the well.

For through Jesus’ willing and deliberate gift we are all as circumcised as we need to be and all as punished as we need to be. Whatever else we do should show not our human determination to Do It All Ourselves but our gratitude for the great gift of grace—and our willingness to share the grace with the whole world for which Jesus died.