The sixties were generous with gifts that keep on taking. I cannot help thinking that one of them was the Church’s 1969 calendar revision for January 1.
/The Church began withdrawing recognition from the circumcision of Jesus in the sixties. Today, circumcision itself is under threat once-Christian Europe, from Switzerland to Scandinavia. Because it is practiced by both Jews and Muslims, it is tempting to see moves against the ritual as the sour fruit of secularist ideology.
And there is partial truth to that. But the entire story, followed closely by Commentary, is darker. Moreover, hostility to ritual circumcision pre-dates current concern over Muslim presence in Europe.
For centuries the Latin Rite had commemorated the date as the Feast of the Circumcision.
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John XXIII’s 1960 calendrical revision distanced the date from its traditional association by means of the simple descriptor, Octave of the Nativity. In 1969 Paul VI declared January 1 for the Solemnity of Mary, displacing the Circumcision. Five years later—and only twenty years after Pius XII’s inauguration of the Queenship of Mary—Montini dropped the Feast of the Circumcision from the Roman liturgical calendar.
Did Marian devotion require additional ecclesiastical encouragement? Catholics were already in possession of significantly more Marian feasts than Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, or any Christian denomination. The proliferation of them over centuries calls to mind something Yves Congar admitted to having experienced in his research for I Believe in the Holy Spirit. Coming forward in time, he found increasing references to Mary where he expected the sources to mention the Holy Spirit.
Over thirty days of the General Roman Calendar are dedicated to Mary. Each of them— whether dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Sorrows—originates in her identity as the Mother of God. Mary has claim to the entire month of May (“’Tis the month of our Mother/ the blessed and beautiful days.
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”) and reigns over October, dedicated to the Holy Rosary. Central to our cultural history, her image has fired Western imagination down the ages. Marian apparitions are celebrated as historic events. She is the Second Eve, “the guarantee of Christ’s true humanity,” in Jaroslav Pelikan’s phrase.
All honor is due the woman who gave flesh to our Redeemer. A Galilean country girl, with capable hands and dusty feet, clothed the uncreated God in creaturely humanity. That is miracle enough to stun us onto our knees and keep us there. Catholics are in no danger of forgetting it. Rather the opposite. We risk making a godling of the Mother of God.
What we jeopardize is precisely what the Feast of the Circumcision held in view: the Jewishness of the woman and her son. The Logos entered history enfleshed as a Jew. To assume flesh was to assume ethnicity as well. Ours is not a cosmic Christ but a Jewish one.
“We are all Semites,” Jacques Maritain was fond of saying. If we leave our Jewish taproot untended, let it wither, we untether ourselves from Jesus of Nazareth. The old Feast of the Circumcision helped keep us mindful that the truth of Jesus is two-fold. His divinity does not erase his humanity.
True man, Jesus of Nazareth was a faithful Jew, subject to that first, infant blood-letting that symbolized his people’s inherited covenant between God and Abraham. Raised in an observant family, he read Torah in synagogue, ate, dressed, and prayed in the spirit of first century Judaism.
Michael Novak, in his 1994 essay “Jacques Maritain and the Jews,” had this to say:
Christianity needs a vital and living Judaism, in the concrete world of history as it is, in order to help it to understand its own inheritance. For many of the foundation and preconceptions and starting places of Christian life have been, and still are, protected and nourished in a vital Judaism. This witness of Judaism is concretely indispensable to keeping the Jewish tradition alive also within Christianity itself.
Jesus’ Judaism bestows an ancestral bond between Christians and Jews. Once, we had a holy day of obligation to remind us of the imperishability of that kinship. Not any more. It is gone at that very moment in “the concrete world of history as it is” that—with Islam rising—we are chastened by its absence.
• • • •
Richard Prosquier, a French Jewish cardiologist born in Poland in 1945, tells of his father being ordered to drop his trousers by the Nazis in order to establish his identity. It is safe to say that when such orders come again, it will not be Muslims asked to expose themselves.