Holy Days, and Holy Lands – and Who We Really Are

No Feast of Circumcision to Start the Year

A couple of weeks ago, on January 1, there was some lighthearted banter of social media about Catholics’ relatively new name for that day: The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Those of my generation remember January 1 as The Feast of the Circumcision, a holy day of obligation that came just a week after Christmas.

Several people remarked on line that that it was no longer embarrassing or awkward to talk about what the day was all about. I guess if you feel better talking about motherhood than about minor surgery to a penis, that’s fine. And Mary does deserve all the devotion we can give her. A “solemnity” is top-shelf stuff, and Mary’s is actually the oldest of her feasts celebrated in the Catholic Church. It used to be on October 11. I think it still should be.

Pope Paul VI – good ol’ progressive Paul – removed the Feast of the Circumcision from the liturgical calendar back in 1974 and replaced it with the Solemnity of Mary. When he did so, he erased yet another reminder of who Jesus was, and of who we Catholics actually are. And that’s sad. We should still have a Feast of the Circumcision.

The circumcision of Jesus was in keeping with one of the most ancient practices of Judaism, in both Genesis (17: 714) and Leviticus (12:3):

“And God said unto Abraham: ‘And as for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. This is My covenant … every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations … And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that should shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.”

They used to tell us, in Catholic grade school, something like “a small piece of Jesus’ skin was cut to show that he was clean and his heart pure before God.” I guess we they figured we couldn’t handle the truth. The rite of circumcision, the brit milah, actually marked a joyous occasion – rather as a christening does now – in which Jesus entered into the covenant of Abraham and the Jewish community.

Catholics – no, make that all Christians – who follow Jesus are followers of a Jewish preacher. Jesus wasn’t Irish Catholic. Or Italian Catholic. He was a Jew. We should get used to that and celebrate it, not forget it.

As an article in the January-February Smithsonian magazine about a recent archaeological discovery states:

“Before such discoveries, a long line of (mostly Christian) theologians had sought to reinterpret the New Testament in a way that stripped Jesus of his Judaism…Archaeology showed that once and for all that the people and places closest to Jesus were deeply Jewish…The discoveries solidified the portrait of Jesus as a Jew preaching to other Jews. He was not out to convert the gentiles; the movement he launched would take that turn after his death, as it became clear that most Jews didn’t accept him as the messiah…Instead, his life drew on – or at least repurposed – bedrock Jewish traditions of prophecy, messianism, and social justice critique as old as the Hebrew Bible.”

Mary Magdalen’s Home Town: The Real Launch Pad for Jesus’ Career?

The discovery written up in Smithsonian was a synagogue and related sacred artifacts uncovered in the town of Migdal in Galilee. The find came in 2009, the same summer that my son Matthew and I toured the Holy Land. I remember driving past a road sign for Migdal. Wish we’d stopped there.

Titian's painting of Mary Magdalen witnessing the resurrection of Jesus.

Titian’s painting of Mary Magdalen witnessing the resurrection of Jesus.

Migdal is the birthplace of “Mary of Migdal,” better known to us as Mary Magdalen. Mary M. – full disclosure here – is my favorite woman of the Bible. She was one of Jesus’ most devoted followers. As a woman with a title, she was undoubtedly wealthy. She probably supported Jesus financially. The gospels tell us that she was the first one to whom he spoke after he rose from the dead. She stuck around after everybody else had fled from the scene of the crucifixion. She should have been one of the apostles, if not their leader.

Tradition and legend also say that Mary Magdalen was a redhead. Heh, heh. Jesus had good taste in women as well. No doubt of his human nature – he was a real man. But I digress.

The Migdal discovery has been called “the Israeli Pompeii.” Also called Magdala, it was a center of resistance to Rome during the Jewish revolt in A.D. 90. The Romans leveled the place and buried it, and its secrets have been hidden for two millennia.

Work here, and at other Galilee sites like Bethsaida, is ongoing and may very well change and clarify the whole story of Jesus. Up until now, we’ve thought that Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish spiritual world and that Galilee was the home of fishermen, shepherds, and assorted rural rubes. Well, maybe not.

That they had a well-appointed synagogue in Migdal could have changed the whole power structure in the Israel of Jesus’ times. Migdal was centrally located, on the road from Nazareth and near the “evangelical triangle” of Chorazin, Capernaum – which calls itself “the town of Jesus” – and Bethsaida. Jesus did much of his preaching in that triangle. There’s no way that he could not have been a frequent visitor to Migdal. He must have met Mary Magdalen there. He most likely preached in the recently discovered synagogue, as well as in Capernaum.

The Migdal synagogue had in it an ornately carved stone that apparently mimicked the design of the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. Nothing like it has ever been found anywhere. Its very existence must have been anathema to Jerusalem religious authorities – the Beltway Bandits of that epoch.

These religious potentates, high priests like Annas and Caiaphas and their pals, the Sadducees, were the Jewish portion of a power structure that was oppressive and corrupt. It was the creation of the conquering Romans and some of the locals who kept the ordinary people subdued. Those locals were puppet kings like the Herods and some collaborationist Jews. Caiaphas got his job as top temple guy only because the Romans approved.

This is the structure that was challenged, or at least weakened, by the existence of the synagogue in Migdal. This is the cruel regime that Jesus challenged.

Speaking Truth to Power

If Jesus can be labeled anything at all, he should be called a Pharisee. The Pharisees were strict, conservative Jews who wanted nothing to do with the Romans or with dilution of their laws and traditions. New Testament writers condemn them; I think that’s unfair. Jesus felt the same way the Pharisees did, most likely. Only he had the courage to speak out.

Jesus wanted to purge the rot out of the system, to “make Judaism great again.” There was certainly plenty of rot to go around.

Jesus cleansing the temple

Jesus cleansing the temple

There was the time he went in and “cleansed the temple”: “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matthew 21: 12-13).

Jesus didn’t spare the Romans his direct wrath either. “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11: 21)

Bethsaida’s name means “house of the fisherman” in Aramaic. Five of the apostles – Peter, Andrew, Philip, James and John – came from there. King Herod’s son Philip, who ruled that portion of the country, had built a temple there to honor one of Rome’s pagan goddesses. That’s another recent archaeological discovery. Nowhere else in Galilee was there a pagan temple. Jesus didn’t like that. He performed several miracles in Bethsaida or nearby, probably to tick the Romans off.

Jesus had his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem in the week before Passover. Coming to Jerusalem at that time and in that manner was like taking over Super Bowl week. Everybody who was anybody was in Jerusalem for Passover. It must have been then that the Romans decided to take him out. He was getting too popular and powerful. That was a threat to the state. Crimes against the state carried one penalty: crucifixion.

The Romans are the bad guys here, not “The Jews.” Rome had its Jewish collaborators, who did the dirty work and whose history was further edited by Christians with an agenda. But they, the Romans, gave the order. Pontius Pilate was a butcher, not a decent man whose hand was forced by the clerics.

Jesus never had a thought of establishing a new religion to supplant Judaism. He was a good, loyal Jew who wanted to fix what had gone wrong. And his teachings are for everyone.

Jesus’ preaching career may very well have begun at Migdal, where he met that wonderful redhead Mary Magdalen. But Jesus’ circumcision eight days after his birth marked his entry into the world that he would change forever.

It’s unfortunate indeed that the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus is no longer a part of Catholics’ liturgical calendar. It’s an occasion that we, his followers, should celebrate with joy and with appreciation for all that he subsequently did for us and for everyone else. That was quite a bit, don’t you think?

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