Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament book of Numbers we read about God speaking to Moses and instructing him how to bless his people:
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord let his face shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.
Luke’s Gospel recounts the scene after the shepherds left the Holy Family. When Jesus was 8 days old he was circumcised and given the name Jesus as was foretold by the angel.
Today’s readings speak to us about blessings and ritual. Our first reading is from Numbers, a book that we rarely read at mass. It’s the 4th book of the Bible and most of it concerns rules that the Israelites must follow in their covenant with God. This was important because God wanted to ensure that there were dramatic and obvious differences between them and their pagan neighbors. And dictating what constitutes a blessing mattered more to them than to us.
A priest friend of mine once got a question after mass from a 10 year old. He asked my friend if anyone could give a blessing or if it was reserved to a priest. My friend answered his question with a question: “What would you say if I sneezed?” Puzzled, the 10 year old answered that he would say: “Bless you.” “Well,” said my friend, “there is your answer.” He got a laugh out of this but it pointed to the truth that we give and receive blessings as a matter of course and sometimes barely notice it.
But at the time a blessing was a bigger deal. When God instructed Moses on the words to use he was telling Moses what God wanted for the people. God didn’t bless the people by wishing them power, or domination, or victory. Instead God wished on his people faithfulness, love, and peace. And it was listened to, as evidenced by the fact that this blessing should be familiar to all of us. The wording of blessings gives us insight into what God wishes for us. As an aside, in the New Testament when Jesus disciples asked how we should pray, Jesus gave us what we now know as the Lord’s prayer. When we pray we are asked to recognize God’s power,.ask for his Kingdom and will to be done among us. Further we are to ask for what we need and forgive.
In addition to blessings we also use rituals to interpret what God wants of us. Only at the very end of the Gospel do we read that Jesus was circumcised; circumcision had been a crucial event for newborn boys since Abraham and continues on to this day. But this has also changed over the years. Many parents choose to circumcise their sons out of a belief that it provides health benefits; others see this as a sign of status. Because of that circumcision has become a more complicated issue.
But it wasn’t in Jesus’ day. Interestingly the Gospel of Matthew was written to Jews to show that Jesus fulfilled all the prophesies of the Messiah but does not mention circumcision. Frankly, it was because there was no need. Anyone who knew that Jesus was born into a Jewish family would already assume. In much the same way we can assume any Catholic was baptized in infancy.
And there’s much that circumcision shares with baptism (with the obvious difference that girls can also be baptized). Both are seen as the beginning of initiation into the faith. When a boy is circumcised he is given his name, and when a child is baptized his parents are asked what name is given. Giving someone a name marks that person as belonging to the group.
Here’s where it gets complicated though. Baptism was intended as a “gateway sacrament,” the first step in someone becoming Christian. But sometimes we find ourselves (intentionally or not) as a gatekeeper for this. I have no insight in how this plays out with our Jewish brothers and sisters but I have seen baptism used as a tool for us to decide who is worthy of admission.
Some Christian churches have determined that baptism should be held off until the person is aware of what he or she is asking, normally early adolescence. Some individuals have denied baptism to a child because the parents don’t go to church or even if the child was born out of wedlock. While often well meaning, these restrictions can often be used as a way of us keeping control and/or manipulating behavior.
Let us not forget that since Joseph, Mary and Jesus were from Nazareth they likely attended services at the Temple in Jerusalem only during Passover. Of course weekly attendance was not expected of all Jews, particularly ones who didn’t live in Jerusalem. But, at this point needs to be made again and again, Jesus was conceived out of wedlock.
Again and again we need to remind ourselves that God is no respecter of the rules we devise for each other. When I was a priest there was a great deal of consternation over couples who wished to marry in the church and were already living together (or, “living in sin” as I was told). My last pastor thought this handwringing was silly and suggested that if a couple were living together they should get married. But others demanded that the couple move apart for the several months of their engagement.
We know nothing about Jesus’ circumcision except that it happened 8 days after his birth and he was given the name Jesus. We don’t know who performed the ritual, or if he knew Joseph and Mary’s status, or had any idea they would spend the next few years in Egypt fleeing Herod.
But we can be aware he had no idea how much this 8 day old would change the world. And perhaps that’s the point: we don’t choose what people will become. I was baptized when I was 19 days old (in fairness my parents were married and went to church every week). Neither they or the priest who baptized me had any idea I would one day be a priest, and then a husband, and then a hospice chaplain. But God did.
And God did not appear to have any conditions.