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The Circumcision of Jesus and the Mother of God

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A little over four years ago, I was in a hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana, awaiting the discharge of my newborn son. At birth, he had trouble breathing (a skill he would learn with ease in a day or two), and thus spent nearly five days surrounded by the whirl of hospital machinery intended to monitor his every breath, a group of top-notch nurses embodying caritas, and the overwhelming love of his ‘newborn’ parents. My son had not yet known the possibility of pain.

Until his circumcision. He was taken from his hospital room for the brief procedure. Upon his arrival back, he cried and cried and cried. We were instructed to put ointment on the place of his recently removed foreskin (otherwise, the skin would stick to the diaper and cause a fresh wound). For weeks, every time I changed his diaper, I encountered a color red as blood—a wound that did not quickly disappear.

I think of this moment in encountering the Gospel for the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. The Gospel speaks about the shepherds glorifying God, having encountered the good news of salvation announced by the angelic hosts. And then, a small, almost throwaway verse:

When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Lk 2:21)

Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, was circumcised. At one level, the text tells us that Mary and Joseph were simply following the gift of the Law. But at another, for those of us who have watched our sons suffer the pain of circumcision, we encounter the true scandal of the Incarnation: God really became human. God really took up all that human life entails. This is such an important point that before the Second Vatican Council, January 1 was not the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, but of the circumcision of Jesus.

The feast of Christmas, the feast of Mary the Mother of God—these are the celebration of something scandalous. The Word took upon himself all that it meant to be human. He did not feed himself in the womb but received total nourishment from the food that his mother consumed. He learned love not as an abstract principle but from the kisses bestowed by Mary and Joseph alike. He learned to obey the will of God through conforming his own will to the Law and his parents alike. He watched Joseph, his father, die. He hungered and thirsted in the desert. He knew the disappointment of total rejection, he knew what it meant to await his own death. He died alone, surrounded only by the mockery of empire and the wounds of love visible upon the faces of his mother and the beloved disciple. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us . . . and the flesh part . . . the human part . . . it really matters.

And indeed, this is the scandalous Good News of Christmas: that our humanity has become part of God’s very life. Salvation does not mean becoming less human. It means that when we truly become human, when we love unto the end, we become divine. As a letter of St. Athanasius declares (in the Office of Readings):

Our Savior truly became man, and from this has followed the salvation of man as a whole. Our salvation is in no way fictitious, nor does it apply only to the body. The salvation of the whole man, that is, of soul and body, has really been achieved in the Word himself. What was born of Mary was therefore human by nature, in accordance with the inspired Scriptures, and the body of the Lord was a true body: it was a true body because it is the same as ours. Mary, you see, is our sister, for we are all born from Adam.

Christmas means that we will never be saved if we try to escape this life, to escape our existence in time and space, as historical bodies intended for relationship and love. Rather, it is only through all that makes us human, all the joys and sorrows of human life, that we too become divine. This world is not to be passed over as mere transitory matter. Instead, we experience the joy of salvation when we conform ourselves to the humanity of the Word made flesh.

No wonder the shepherds sang songs of praise.

Featured Image: Philippe Quantin, The Circumcision, detail (1635); courtesy of Yelkrokoyade via Wikimedia Commons; CC-BY-4.0.