God’s deep dive into human particularity
Liz Stuart, 1 January 2023
Isaiah 63: 7–9; Matthew 2: 13–23
Today the Church celebrates the naming and circumcision of Jesus. There is a story of a chap in New York looking into the window of a splendid clock shop and when he walks in, he is greeted by the shopkeeper and starts to ask about clocks. ‘Sorry, I don’t know anything about clocks’, says the shopkeeper, ‘I am a mohel, the person in Judaism who performs circumcisions’. ‘Why do you have a shop front of full of clocks then?’ asks the customer. ‘What do you want me to put in my shop window?’ replies the mohel!
We are a bit embarrassed by circumcision, but for a long time the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus was one of the major feasts of the Church, and relics of the holy prepuce or foreskin were highly venerated in the Middle Ages. Why? Because Jesus’ circumcision reminded everyone that he was truly human.
Christians profess that Jesus was truly God and truly human, but that is such a mind-achingly difficult thing to comprehend that some groups of Christians have throughout history erred on the side of downplaying his humanity, seeing it as some sort of costume for his divinity. I must admit that I wince at the line in Hark the Herald, ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see’, because the mystery of the incarnation that we are plunged into in this glorious season is that Jesus is not like a walnut whip – one thing on the outside and another on the inside – but is God and human all the way through.
The incarnation is God’s deep dive into human particularity, into a particular place in a particular time into a particular religion. To be human is to be particular. And that particularly for Jesus (it is interesting on this day to remember that we do not call him by his real name, Yeshua) involved enduring the worst of human brutality at the beginning and end of his life as a victim of tyrannical regimes.
At the beginning of his life this takes the form of genocide perpetuated by a puppet king. There is no independent historical record of the event we know as ‘the slaughter of the innocents’, but what we do know from such historical record is that Herod was a paranoid ruler who systematically murdered anyone he considered a threat, including three of his own sons, and 300 military leaders. The slaughter of children is most certainly compatible with his known playbook.
We tend to think of the Holy Family plodding alone out of Bethlehem in search of safety, but Herod’s plans would have been leaked and it is likely that they became part of a crowd of frightened refugees forced to escape from a Jewish monarch to the country most associated with oppression in the Jewish mind, Egypt. What hopelessness and despair this must have engendered for them as individuals and families but also as Jews, forced back into Egypt – the land of their slavery – by one of their own, knowing their own home had been desecrated by a fellow Jew.
We need to seek God in the particularity of those he lived among: the oppressed, the feared, the broken, the grieving, the refugee and immigrant of our day. He stretches out his arms to us from them.
The particularity of the incarnation means that when we look for God from our own particular circumstances, we need to seek him in the particularity of those he lived among: the oppressed, the feared, the broken, the grieving, the refugee and immigrant of our day. He stretches out his arms to us from them. We cannot say we know him and love him, if we do not know and love them.
Malcolm Guite’s poem ‘Refugee’, recently chosen by His Majesty the King to be read at the carol service organised by the Princess of Wales, is a painfully beautiful reminder of this:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.