Yesterday was the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Name. The church says Jesus was circumcized on this date, affirming that Christianity is linked to Judaism, and that Christ had a history, a location, a culture.
For some this signifies the incredible. Some would prefer God, or Jesus, to be a lot like a superhero. In that case the story seems more like a comic book, a fantasy of the origins like the Green Lantern or The Hulk. But the merit of the story is that we can’t get out of our historical context and cultural location. Although we may feel righteous about who we are in our current context, we are always embedded and bounded. For some this is a trap, a prison; but in another way it is a lot like gravity – without it, what kind of collisions would ensue? Could we behave comprehensibly without the cultural knowledge we do have?
I often find that people are likely to judge the people of the past based on our contemporary morality. But when we enter their judgement, we remain unaware of what they believed was truly at stake. The cosmology of the ancients, their everyday experience of the world remains foreign. I doubt that most of us would survive well even in 19th century America, not to mention 15th century England, 13th century Mongolia, 8th century France or 1st century Palestine. We are learning much more than they did; and certainly we are not completely different emotionally, but those worlds are foreign places. Our world has become both large and small – we intuit the cosmos, and yet it seems that the world as at our footsteps.
Holy Name reminds us that our God, by being embodied, works within our own materiality. We may not necessarily name accurately who God is like. Although it seems, however, as if we have implicitly limited God, we do not say that God cannot be placed in other cultures. We still say we see God engaging any place where love is the primary form of grace.
The good news is that the sources of liberation and hope we need are already here. Discovering the sacred heart of God is not done just through becoming an expert; it is not done through becoming perfect; it cannot be except through the lens of our cultural context, the traditions and signs that are available. For this reason, a theologian must identify the present symbols and signs – the objects that convey meaning – and question them here. People only experience the divine through the words and culture they inherit; the cross and the empty tomb reveals their worthy, if ephemeral, nature.