Friday, January 1, 2016

Queer Christmas Day Eight The Holy Name of Jesus

 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. [Luke 2:21]

According to Jewish custom, the eighth day after birth, a male child was to be circumcised and officially named. We commemorate this event (recorded in exactly one verse in the Bible) on January 1, the eighth day of Christmas. It was once more commonly known as the Feast of the Circumcision, but as society became more squeamish about thinking too much about the penis of the Incarnate God, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus has become more accepted. (I'm speculating, really, but how far off from the facts can I be?)

It's an uncomfortable day, really, and not only because it sort of forces us into thinking about the Holy Penis or the ridiculous numbers of relics purporting to be the Holy Prepuce (Foreskin). In the most positive take, it makes Jesus fully human, genitals and all. At it's least positive, it can be a focal point for patriarchy, emphasizing not only the humanity of Jesus, but his maleness.

It's impossible to know what the writer of Luke's gospel had in mind by including this incident in the story of Jesus. (As a seminary professor was fond of saying, "We can't ask him. He's dead.") Most scholars focus on the fulfillment of Jewish Law---Jesus came from a good Jewish family who kept all the customs of their faith and nation. This in turn is sometimes turned into an example of how Jesus "fulfilled the law" to make room for the new covenant (a stretch in my estimation).

(An aside---a bit of trivia I remember from seminary days, which I can't back up with the exact word, is that the Hebrew word we translate as "covenant" has at its root the verb "to cut." As circumcision of males was the main sign of belonging to the Hebrew covenant with God, another professor pithily observed that to be Jewish was to literally "cut a deal" with God.)

To focus on the name of Jesus more than on the penis of Jesus, here's some quick facts:

Jesus is, via a couple of language translations, the same as Joshua and was a rather common name for boys. So much for the uniqueness of the name. The spin I would put on this, however, is the way that God comes into the ordinary. In all the angel decrees about what to name this child (whichever Gospel you read, whichever person is ordered to name the child Jesus), we're not given some exotic or even eccentric name. It's the sort of name any good Jewish family might choose for their son. I find this in keeping with the general "lowliness" of Jesus and his family. They did not come from wealthy or otherwise privileged people.

In fact, in the following verses, when Jesus is presented as the firstborn male and so dedicated to God, Luke tells us that they offered a sacrifice of "a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons." If we look at the Leviticus source for this custom, we find in the 12th chapter, "When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons . . . " Luke tells us they provided the offering of poor people, who could not afford the sheep. 

So Jesus comes from people of limited means, given a name that he could have found on any keychain rack in any gas station in Galilee.

And this is the name that the second chapter of Philippians says is the name above all names.

I believe we queer Christians have to pay special attention to these reversals in the Gospel stories. This was a family of nobodies. They were not rich in the Jewish community and certainly had no status in the Roman Empire, but they were chosen by God to usher in a new covenant, one that did not require actual cutting but which promised good things to those deemed unworthy by society.

Obviously, this is not only a message to the LGBT person cast out by family and society, but it is important that we find ourselves in it. Looking back on previous posts in this "queer Christmas" series, it's important to find the intersections of all these messages. If we look to the exaltation of Jesus in Philippians chapter 2, lets not miss the first part of that story, the humility of Jesus and the "emptying out" of all the power he could claim in order to serve humanity. In modern parlance, check your privilege, whatever it is, as you claim your place in God's Reign, but do claim your place.

Claim your full humanity, your full fleshiness, as Jesus is shown to have via stories of his circumcision and, eventually, crucifixion. Claim your full inclusion in the community of saints, however ordinary your name or class.

Ultimately, today isn't only about the penis of Jesus or his name. It's about the ordinariness of our lives and the way we are welcomed into the Reign of God.

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