On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived. Luke 2:21
[NOTE FROM THE WRITER: This piece was originally written for the Fear Not project in 2004. Ultimately, it was not included in that elegant package, and soon you’ll understand why. It contains mature subject matter, in a manner of speaking.]
I am embarrassed (but not entirely) to admit that Jesus’ circumcision speaks to me. To go off on the subject of circumcision is to risk dismissal as a theology freak or, more precisely in my case, to wonder whether I am a prurient literalist.
I’ll be blunt – the fact that Jesus had a member and lived the life he did may be enough to sober me into accepting his every claim for world domination. Interest in reading the rest of this post may have sharply declined for members of a certain gender. But anyone who has ever been a boy can follow my logic (though we boys have probably not given this point much thought, and it didn’t come up in Sunday school).
A father of boys, I have had opportunity to apply my circumcision theology apart from its metaphoric significance or overearnest sermon applications. I have given authorization for not one but three circumcisions in my life. (Collective gasp or no big deal, depending upon your level of detachment on the subject. My wife hadn’t a strong opinion one way or the other.)
In the first two cases I, Christopher Dominic Greco, son of Eugene James Greco, Jr., son of Eugene James Greco, Sr., stood on one side of a hospital window as an unnamed surgeon on the other side ushered the screaming Anthony Littell Greco, and two years later, GianCarlo Littell Greco, into the Abrahamic covenant with the blink of a scalpel. I can remember one nurse singing the praises of GianCarlo’s surgeon for her excellent circumcisions. What she meant by excellent, I dared not ask, but believed entirely and hurriedly as new parents are wont to do.
Yes, I felt their pain in a heartfelt, cosmic way, like the patriarch offering Isaac to God in resolute obedience, but by the time of Matthew Christopher, nearly four years later, I went to work (in the days before a two week paternity leave was offered), and shed not one tear leaving my wife, Dorothy, to keep watch. There was no extra charge for these unlikely and, according to this century’s experts, unnecessary procedures – an ironic holdover from an earlier era when medical and pastoral care were not divorced.
The choice to have my boys circumcised was in my face, so to speak, every time I changed those early diapers. Special care had to be taken in the days following the most excellent circumcision to make sure the wound was kept clean and to apply new gauze as needed. These are daunting orders for uncertain, unmedical parental hands – but nothing, in the end, that excessive applications of petroleum jelly could not handle. When in doubt I fastened the diaper hurriedly, hoping it would all be fine in the end, and it was. The special gauze and Vaseline ritual passed once the circumcision had healed properly. (How one measures whether a circumcision has healed properly, I dared not ask. It doesn’t just fall off, like the umbilical cord.) My wife was always grateful for the passing of this holy season.
So why’d I do it? That’s the bottom line men of faith and substance want to know as they watch the Patriots game over a flight of beers in a sports bar, contemplating how they will handle Junior’s junior. Had I noticed sooner the verse in Luke’s gospel mentioning Jesus’ circumcision, I could claim that’s “WJD”, but I hadn’t. I had only the litany of trivial pro’s and con’s to consider.
1) I was circumcised, so they should be for the sake of carrying on the legacy. Or
2) I was circumcised, so they should be so they don’t freak out in the locker room when they realize they are different from their dad. Or
3) There’s no good reason to circumcise – either a) medically, because it has been shown that blah, blah, blah; or b) politically, because it is another example of the patriarchal church’s inability to ‘focus on your own damn family’ as the retro bumper sticker proclaims, or c) theologically, because God means to circumcise our hearts, and we’ve heard raves about his excellent technique.
In the end, I admit that I had my sons circumcised for the simple reason that I was afraid not to. Here I must tip my hat to my treasured Catholic upbringing, which taught me to fear God and much else. Though it makes no sense, I am also afraid to be cremated after my death because what will happen on the last day when the dead shall rise and meet Jesus in the sky? Never mind that we’re getting new bodies in heaven, or that thousands upon thousands have no interred remains for the rising (for totally kosher reasons); I don’t want to be caught at the second coming without a body, or uncircumcised. I may be truly a literalist at heart.
Why get circumcised? Indeed. Why attempt to follow the examples of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? And, of course, Jesus – the chaste revolutionary who challenges all power structures while allowing himself to be ended by one of the most potent. Why embrace the suffering at both ends of a life – one symbolic and passing, the other ultimate (and passing)?
The reason to circumcise is ineffable. It is beyond words and the obvious. It feels good to be connected to Jesus at an inexplicable level. It feels good to be irrational. It feels like power within, which belongs not to me, and therefore it cannot be defended or abused.
There’s something about manhood in this, I’m inclined to believe these many years after my consequential choice to have my sons circumcised. Perhaps, circumcision is the first battle scar. No slight to my uncircumcised brothers (Philistine or otherwise).
This morning I walked through the woods having procrastinated slightly the day’s writing which was to include finishing this unnecessary reflection on the relationship between male genitalia and masculine spirituality. I sensed I was not alone on the brown-needled path (and no, I don’t mean chipmunks). Perhaps I was being beckoned away from people not in order to write or for solitude’s sake, but to be with somebody Else. An engaging thought, if sentimental. I wondered to myself to what extent my avoidance of being alone in the wild has been not only a holdover of my (lower c) catholic fears, but a rejection of an invitation to be fathered.
There is a kind of fathering which does not begin and end with – again, forgive the obsessiveness of this essay – a penis. This fathering follows the pattern of how Jesus was fathered: conceived first by G-d in a hidden and unknowable place, then fathered by a virtuous man who worked with his hands in the company of circumcised men of his blood and land. Ultimately, Jesus had to return to the domain of the G-d who created him (and everything) from nothing, without need of a penis, and so must we. This is the G-d who speaks through clouds, “This is my son in whom I am well-pleased.” There is no other.
I wondered to what extent my perpetual obeisance to other men’s measurements of my masculinity has been not simply my peculiar manifestation of father-woundedness, but an obsessive willful refusal of G-d as my actual father. To what extent do I want not to be named and have my heart circumcised by One Whom I cannot control? It seems less costly, if literal and small-minded of me, to live in the world of penises and compare, measure, and comfort myself with the illusion that I am controlling those men who may actually be controlling me.
On this day, the illusion failed, and I could see clearly. To the extent that I continue to ungraciously demand something of my circumcised father or brother or boss and allow them to demand things of me which only our uncircumcised Heavenly Father can give us, we remain less godly and less manly.
As I kept walking, I came upon a mature pine tree some 40 feet tall, which was thriving at its very top, but had nothing green in its first 30 feet of life, due I suppose to the trees around it blocking the sun. Some dozen or so stump-like branches, of 4, 6 or 8 feet lengths, grew randomly from the trunk in diverse directions, aimed slightly upward like erect phalluses marking failed attempts to extend its life in any way possible. There was nothing prurient or shameful about this tree, unlike as it was to others around it. It seemed maturely masculine to me – very much alive, with its low branches seeming not like failures but signs of unusual hunger and ambition, which have been finally satisfied, judging from the 15 foot diameter canopy it cast against limitless blue.
While I beheld the tree, over its left shoulder, the morning sun stripped itself of passing clouds and shone directly in my eyes. The sun warmed and blinded me slightly. Literalist that I am, I received this as the presence of my Father measuring me and receiving me as He did this tree.
There was no way to justify the bald branches as worthy, meaningful enterprises, nor could I hide behind my own such efforts – be they creative or sexual. I stood on the path, very much in my man’s body which, like my soul, often expresses itself in nonerotic and unproductive erections, so to speak. There’s that play I wrote a few years back which sits in my file drawer unproduced, there’s the back catalogue of songs written and never heard by others, there are the seemingly infinite adolescent sexual fantasies of attaching to this male or that female, there are the dreams of worlds I might have created, places I might have lived, identities I might have explored. Like the branches, they are dead now like so many fruitless erections – no needles, no cones, nothing.
I stand alive and unashamed, bonded with wife and sons, like this one tree among many, and if I can only take it in:
Circumcised and Well-Fathered.