About twelve centuries ago, the Byzantine monk St. Theodore the Studite wrote a series of polemics against the iconoclasts—those who persisted, even after the second council of Nicaea, in teaching that it was blasphemous to depict Christ in visual images. The iconoclasts argued that because Christ is God in the flesh, God cannot be pictured; if God is infinite, then he is uncircumscribed and therefore uncircumscribable. To reduce him to an icon, they declared, is blasphemy, for it portrays God in finite terms, and so dishonors the almighty and transcendent Lord.
But this is to misunderstand the nature of the incarnation, wrote St. Theodore. He followed St. John Damascene in arguing that, precisely because Christ is God in the flesh, then Christ himself exists in and as a finite form—a human being—even as his divine nature remains infinite. Divinity, in other words, is not squeezed into humanity, into the body of Jesus. Quite the contrary: The revelation of Jesus Christ is that God becomes one of us without diminishing himself, without becoming anything less than God. He remained what he was and assumed what he was not.
In the course of his arguments, Theodore turns to a biblical passage that might at first glance appear irrelevant to his polemic. He writes:
Some bodies may only be divided in thought; for instance, some cannot be touched, and as such are uncircumscribable; others bodies, instead, can be cut in actuality; for instance, some are solid, because they can be touched, and as such they can be circumscribed. If, then, Christ assumed a body that cannot be cut, then this body is also uncircumscribable. But Christ’s body can be cut; indeed, Luke of blessed speech says, “And when the eight days were passed of his circumcision” (2:21). And if he was circumcised, then he was circumscribed—and this is the truth.
“If he was circumcised, then he was circumscribed”: God incarnate had a body; if it was a true body, a human body, then it could be cut; it was in fact cut when he was circumcised on the eighth day in accordance with the Law of Moses; therefore, Christ the God-Man was circumscribed, in virtue of his circumcision. And if he was circumscribed in the incarnation, then to write his image in an icon, far from dishonoring the Lord, renders honor to Christ, who is the visible image of the invisible God. Or so we may conclude from the circumcision of the newborn Jesus.
On the Orthodox calendar, today is the feast of the circumcision of Christ. On this day the Orthodox commemorate the first blood shed by God for humankind, a sign and a figure of the sacrifice to come.
On the Roman calendar, today is the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God. On this day Catholics commemorate the divine motherhood of the one who conceived and bore God in her womb for the salvation of the world.
For other Christians in the West, today is the feast of the naming of Jesus. For St. Luke writes in the same passage quoted above that it was when he was circumcised that Mary named her firstborn son Jesus, “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (2:21).
For all believers it is the eighth day of Christmas and the first day of the new year. In 1968 Pope Paul VI pronounced January 1 to be a day of peace. As Pope St. Leo the Great once said in a sermon on the Nativity, “The birthday of the Lord is the birthday of peace.”
Peace, the name of Jesus, Mary, circumcision. Sometimes the liturgical calendars of the disparate and divided communions reflect a jumble or dissonance, unplanned and uncoordinated. But sometimes there is a providential wisdom about it, a deep liturgical and scriptural grammar uniting what otherwise might seem random or unrelated.
Recall Theodore’s aphorism above: “if he was circumcised, then he was circumscribed.” That is to say, if he was Jewish, then he was incarnate. What Theodore brings together our calendars have separated: the Jewishness of the Word made flesh in Mary’s womb. The Orthodox remember on the first day of every year that the child Christ was a child of Abraham. But Theodore helps us to see the deeper mystery. Not only is the Messiah of Israel circumcised in observance of Torah. On the eighth day when Mary presents her son to be circumcised, it is God who is circumcised. For Jesus is the God of Abraham, dwelling in and among the people of Abraham as one of them. The God who covenanted with Abraham through circumcision now receives the sign of the covenant himself. Abraham’s God is circumcised on the eighth day.
How can Jesus be both Abraham’s God and Abraham’s child? The question recalls Jesus’s own challenge to the scribes: “David himself calls him Lord; so how is he his son?” (Mark 12:37). The mystery has its source, if not its answer, in Jesus’s mother. Mary is herself a daughter of Israel and therefore a child of Abraham. It is from her that Jesus, by the Spirit’s power, receives his human nature. That nature is not generic. The flesh the Word becomes is not human flesh in general. It is Jewish. The God of the Jews becomes a Jew in Jesus, through Mary. She becomes who she is—Theotokos, the mother or bearer of God—because of who he is—Immanuel, God with us.
As Dante puts it, Mary is at once the daughter of her son and the mother of all his children. She is thus a figure of Christ’s body and bride, the church, who ever since has conceived and borne innumerable children of the Father by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Even while Jesus was still in the womb, Zechariah could say that “the Lord God of Israel . . . has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). The father of the Baptist prophesied that his son would “guide [Israel’s] feet into the way of peace” (1:79), just as angels glorified God at the birth of Jesus just a few months later: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (2:14).
The birth of Jesus is indeed the birthday of peace, of the shalom promised by the sages and prophets of Israel. The salvation he brings is the redemption of Abraham’s seed and, in them, all peoples. The octave of Christmas reminds us just who this is who brings heaven in his train. He is the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one who delivered Israel from Egypt and met Moses at Sinai. It is he alone who meets us in Mary’s womb, in a Bethlehem stable, in the brit milah of the eighth day. For “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Today is a day for peace, for today the church remembers Jesus, son of Mary, savior of the world and redeemer of all Israel.
Brad East is assistant professor of theology at Abilene Christian University.
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