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C h a p t e r 6 “Let Us Be Circumcised!” Ritual Differences Is circumcision, for example, an exterior mark? Is it an archive? —­ Jacques Derrida Festive Difference Ritual and Difference Jonathan Z. Smith has explained ritual as “above all, an assertion of difference ,” and explained that ritual is “concerned with the elaboration of relative difference that is never overcome.”1 We see ritualized the “difference that is never overcome” clearly in early Christian commemoration of Christ’s circumcision , on January 1. We have seen, in the previous chapters, how early Christians transformed the stereotypical signifier of Jewish identity into a malleable , even contradictory sign of Christianity: in texts, homilies, treatises, and letters, in discussions of theology, Scripture, and practice. The Feast of the Circumcision ritualizes and inscribes these paradoxical discourses into the heart of the communal body of Christ: a thoroughly gentile body that had, by the end of late antiquity, duly imbibed Paul’s warning that “if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Gal 5:2).2 Five hundred years after Paul wrote to the Galatians, a local council of bishops in Tours, most likely adapting existing liturgical practice, pronounced: “So during the interval from the Birth of the Lord to Epiphany, every day is a festival, with the exception of that three-­ day period on which, in order to stamp out the custom of the pagans [i.e., New Year’s festivals], our fathers established that “Let Us Be Circumcised!” 147 special services should be held on January 1, so there may be chanting in the churches, and on the eighth hour on that same day a Mass of the Circumcision may be celebrated as is fitting to God.”3 Liturgical historians usually take this brief notice as our earliest evidence for the ritualized memorial of Christ’s circumcision.4 By the sixth century, the Feast of the Circumcision was one of several festivals that had been introduced to commemorate, and allow participation in, events from the lives of Jesus and Mary.5 Late ancient churches made these crucial moments from the life of Jesus part of their public, liturgical life. As Christians gathered together for these festivals, their communal identities were discursively shaped and scripted. Ritual, as Smith reminds us, simultaneously addresses and problematizes difference. What differences were brought to the fore as Christians came to celebrate a rejected sign on the body of their savior, publicly and communally marking this Jewish ritual on Jesus’ body through their own Christian ritual? I begin this final chapter in the story of Jesus’ circumcision in late antiquity by engaging the question of time, difference, and community: calendars and festivals (in antiquity as today) created distinctive communal identities, but also acknowledged “other” times and temporalities. Early Christians were sensitive to the ways that public celebration could enact distinction from “others ” (pagans and Jews), but could also open up the occasion to blur those distinctions. I consider the evidence for the beginning of the Feast of the Circumcision among other feasts of the life of Jesus (such as Epiphany, Christmas , and the Feast of the Presentation) before considering two main pieces of evidence for how Christians understood their commemoration of and participation in Christ’s circumcision: two sermons, one in Latin, the other in Greek, both probably from the fifth century or early sixth century. Throughout this study I have engaged primarily with written remains; now, as I consider the ritual lives of Christians, we might feel the historical distance between text and reality yawn a bit more gapingly. We should, perhaps , be leery of inferring too much from textual remains: how can we glean the feeling of ritual—­ by which I mean both its embodiment and sentiment—­ from literature? Michael Penn, in his study of the early Christian kiss, helpfully notes that, no matter what manner of evidence we possess, we are always examining a world of discourse: “An individual’s perception of reality does not stem from a reflection of the real, but is mediated and manipulated by cultural discourse.”6 Ritual does not precede language, nor does language always fail to represent an elusive bodily truth. Rather, in the liturgical language 148 Chapter 6 ritual difference is made and unmade. In both of the homilies I examine in this chapter we see Christians yearning for difference even as they so ostentatiously reject it: the strangeness of the heretic, the hard-­ hearted anachronism of the Jew, the ignorance of the...


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