Thirty-five years ago, Cambridge opened new worlds to me — I used to think 1 January was New Year’s Day, Hogmanay in Scotland. The Cambridge University Diary, however, designated the day thus: CIRCUMCISION: University LIbrary closed to readers. A good day to stay out of the stacks, then. And what an embarrassing, not quite Anglo-Saxon thing ‘Circumcision’ sounds like! Messy, painful, foreign.
Up to 1752, new year in England, for most legal and general purposes, had been the Annunciation — Lady Day, 25 March, nine months before Christmas (geddit?). In a Christian scheme of time, the good news of the Incarnation made an appropriate start to the year. After 1753 it still did, but New Year’s Day, by default, became the Circumcision. Now we start each new year of grace with a liturgical reminder of Jesus’s location within the old law of … er, grace or works?
The old law was, in fact, a law of grace, not a simple game of works. God gave circumcision as a sign of his favour towards his people, their specialness (to use a rather cheesy term) and their identity. It was a way of personalising their belonging and identity by expressing it in an individual’s flesh. It was some of the troops who turned the observance of circumcision into a legalistic game of Brownie Points, and when they did this they were going beyond the original intentions of its Framer.
This matters, partly as a matter of good theology, but also because historically whenever Christians have rejected their Jewish roots, it has done them no good and cursed them and all the world, shamefully. Supersessionist fantasy leads directly to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the ghetto, ultimately the gas chamber. From Marcion to the Eisenach Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life, be very afraid when Christians start trying to slew off their Jewish roots.
Anyway, the relationship between grace and works is actually rather interesting. Any fool can play one off against the other, indeed most fools do. Either we are home and dry, or we have to work our socks off to attain our heavenly home. But what if the truth was not either, or neither, but, simultaneously, both? Get out of jail free, and then work your freedom as vigorously and in as disciplined a way as if you still had to work your passage, but freely this time?
I’m fascinated by the way that when you lay before Christians, in a descriptive rather than loaded way, the dozen or so classic theories of atonement in the New Testament, people of all stripes, including many who often major in their sermons on one simple theory full stop, tend to end up choosing two, not one.
Furthermore if you put down the theories on two cards, one labelled ‘get out of jail free’ and the other ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, usually they choose one from each card. Why not? The ability to walk down the sidewalk and chew gum simultaneously is a virtue, not a limitation.
So the Circumcision is not a feast of legalism, or a reminder of grace. Legalism is always bad news, and pure antinomianism is always fantasy. The Brownie Point circuits are too profoundly hardwired into human nature for this to be otherwise. Rather the Circumcision is a time to celebrate the joy of both/and theology — like light as wave and packet, life in Christ gloriously free and also infinitely challenged.
A secure identity, and everything to live for. Happy New Year!
Alan Wilson is area Bishop of Buckingham in the diocese of Oxford.