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7/3/22 Homily: Circumcision

Updated: Aug 11

Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]


Almost every Sunday, we listen to a passage from a letter of Saint Paul to an early Christian community. And so, today I’d like to speak a bit about our second reading. It comes from the very end of Saint Paul’s letter to the Church in Galatia. The entire letter to the Galatians can be read in under ten minutes; and so, I encourage everyone to do that when possible.


To put the letter in its historical context, Saint Paul was writing to a Christian community that did not have Jewish origins. The people had been gentiles, as they were called at the time. That word, gentile, simply means, not Jewish.


The first Christians were Jewish. After all, Jesus was Jewish and chose other Jews to be his apostles and disciples. Jesus had ministered primarily to the Jews prior to his death resurrection. This was to fulfill God’s promise to Israel and the prophecies.


But before Jesus ascended back into heaven, he commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations. And that’s the era in which the letters of Saint Paul are written. The apostles and Paul and many others were going to every nation to make disciples.


During that apostolic era, a major issue arose which divided the early Church. That issue was whether or not Christians had to become Jews, and abide by Jewish practices even as Christians. Very specifically, the matter of circumcision was a major point of contention. Why circumcision?


Even centuries before the Mosaic Law came into practice, circumcision had been the one thing to physically set the people of God apart in the two thousand years between Abraham and Jesus. Other ancient religions may have marked their members with certain tattoos or piercings. Circumcision was the physical mark of male Jews. If Christian males weren't obligated to be circumcised, then how could any other obligation of Judaism hold?


The issue was settled at the very first ecumenical council. You may all be familiar with the most recent ecumenical council, known as Vatican II. The very first ecumenical council was the Council of Jerusalem, which is biblical, and described in the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.


In short, the finding of this council, as guided by the Holy Spirit, was that the Law—or Torah, as it was called in Hebrew—had been superseded and perfected by faith in Christ Jesus. Truly, the new wine that was Christianity could not be poured into the old wineskin of Judaism. And those who had become Christian by faith were no longer bound to observe the 613 or so commandments of the Jewish Law.


That’s part of why, you’ll notice, Saturday is no longer regarded as the Sabbath—for Christians. Christians regard Sunday as the Sabbath day, because our Lord rose from the dead on a Sunday. That council is also why perhaps all of us here weren’t Jews first before becoming Christian, and why we don’t require circumcision for new Catholics who are male.

Any converts here have the Council of Jerusalem to thank for that. As Saint Paul writes today, “For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.”


But if we’re not set apart and marked by circumcision, how are we marked and set apart? How do we become that new creation?


We become a new creation through baptism. I spoke more at length on this earlier this year when we celebrate the feast of our Lord's baptism, but in short, we baptize new disciples because Jesus told his followers to do so: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”


When we were baptized, the merits of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross were attributed to us. Saint Paul writes about that in his letter to the Romans: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. [1]


Jewish males were physically marked by circumcision. Christians are spiritually marked through baptism. Some are called to also be marked physically; martyrs, for example, who die for the faith. Saint Paul himself was marked that way, as he describes it a bit in his second letter to the Corinthians:


…Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles…[2] He goes on.


What could the circumcision party possibly hold against him? Not only was he physically marked by circumcision as a Jew, he was physically marked also by scars received as a disciple of Christ. But his point is not to boast in his own sufferings, but to dismiss them because he has a greater claim to glory; namely, the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.


As we heard from his letter today: May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world… From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body. [3]


Some people have speculated that Saint Paul had the stigmas of Christ’s passion, perhaps on his hands and his feet. But since tradition hasn't handed that down to us, it's more likely that he was referring to his physical scars and/or his baptism into Christ.


This embracing of the Cross permeates Saint Paul's writings. To the Colossians, he writes: I complete in my flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. What a bold statement! Who here has the audacity to say the same? What could possibly be lacking in this [gesturing to the Crucifix]? Nothing, except our participation in it. Saint Paul embraced that participation fully.


May we, through the grace of the Mass, also be filled with such faith and apostolic zeal to do the same.

[1] Rom. 6:3-4 [2] Cf. 2 Cor. 11: [3] Cf. Gal. 6:14, 17