The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Chaplain
The question has been asked how, in the twenty-first century, it is still possible for males and females to be denied their inherent right to keep all the body parts with which they are born. Of course, I am addressing the practice of male and female circumcision, a rite of passage which involves 13.3 million boys and 2 million girls worldwide.
It is a question which would not have been asked two thousand years ago when the boy born to Mary and Joseph was named and circumcised eight days after his birth, as was and remains the custom among Jewish families. Once the shepherds had left the holy family, returning to the hills, praising God for all they had heard and seen, Joseph and Mary would have set about making plans. It was not only that they, too, had to make the return journey to Nazareth, there were also certain religious rituals that had to be fulfilled.
In accordance with the Law of Moses, following childbirth, it was necessary for the mother after a period of ritual purification to present herself at the Temple in Jerusalem. The period of purification for a male child was forty days and for a female child eighty days. At the entrance to the Temple, the mother would offer the priest a lamb or, if the expense of a lamb was beyond her means, either a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons: one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering. After the sacrifice was made, the woman was declared clean. That was not all.
Again, in accordance with the Law of Moses, it was necessary to redeem a firstborn male child. This had its origins in the events leading up to the Exodus, and the tenth plague when God struck down all the Egyptian firstborn but spared the firstborn of the Hebrews. To compensate God, the Jews were required to consecrate their firstborn to him (Exodus 13:2) unless they were redeemed. Jesus, being a firstborn son, was redeemed with the usual payment of five shekels.
But before any of that, on the eighth day following the birth of a male child, it was necessary to circumcise and name that child.
Mary and Joseph needed to do some serious planning. They were probably keen to get home to Nazareth but had to factor-in a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem and while Bethlehem was relatively close to Jerusalem (less than ten miles unlike Nazareth which was a good four or five days from Jerusalem), it made neither practical nor economic sense to remain in Bethlehem.
So in all probability Mary and Joseph would have returned to Nazareth and either there, or along the route would have searched out a Mohel, the professional circumciser.
Luke doesn't record his name but the Mohel Joseph found would have had no idea that he was placing his hand and knife on one who was literally the firstborn Son of Yahweh. Jesus was just another Jewish boy, one among hundreds. A twenty minute service, with the circumcision itself taking no longer than a few seconds, and Jesus was marked or signed by God as a son of the covenant made with Abraham, identified with the tradition and line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
And now a digression.
Three years ago, I was training a group of London healthcare professionals exploring the importance of cultural awareness and sensitivity. Good healthcare provision needs to be framed in ways which take account of and accept cultural difference. All was going well until, unexpectedly, the group sharply divided over the issue of female circumcision. As you will be aware FGM, female genital mutilation, is a practice which although illegal in the UK is still carried out for cultural, religious and social reasons within families and communities.
While none of the healthcare professionals I was training defended the practice of FGM, there were those who were angered by what they perceived to be the ignorance of other members of the group: ignorance about the social consequences for any woman who remains uncircumcised, who as a result becomes unmarriageable. She no longer 'belongs', notwithstanding the fact that FGM is recognised internationally as a human rights' violation.
What has any of this to do with the circumcision of Jesus more than two thousand years ago?
When the early Christian leaders met in Jerusalem some fifteen years after the death of Jesus and made the decision that Gentile converts to Christianity were not required to observe certain aspects of the Law of Moses, including those governing the circumcision of males, they were taking an extraordinary and courageous step. I suspect that their discussions would have been just as sharply divided as those of my former healthcare colleagues. It would have been fuelled by emotion as well as theology. What would not have been recognised or intentionally addressed, I suspect, would have been the place of power.
I would suggest that the power of ownership and belonging is at the heart of circumcision: parental and marital ownership, family and community belonging.
As for the Council of Jerusalem, I wonder if they appreciated that in releasing Gentile converts from the requirement to undergo circumcision, the early Church relinquished institutional power and restored power to where it rightly belongs: with God. For with spiritual rather than physical circumcision, the spiritual circumcision of the heart, it is placing power with God who alone knows me as I truly am. Yes, the history of the Church since the Council of Jerusalem may have been, at times, her attempt to wrest back that power from God but today, as we recall the circumcision of the firstborn Son of God, let us also remember what the name 'Jesus' means: it is God, and I would add God alone, who saves.