Christ Jesus, we beg you by your loneliness, not that you may spare us affliction, but that you may not abandon us in it. When we encounter affliction, teach us to see you in it as our sole comforter. Let affliction strengthen our faith, fortify our hope, and purify our love. Grant us the grace to see how we can use our affliction to your glory, and to desire no other comforter but you, our Savior, Strengthener, and Friend. Amen.
- Bernadette of Lourdes, adapted by Michael Counsell
(Painting: "My Soul is Sorrowful unto Death," by James Tissot, c.1890)
Joe woke with a start. Sunlight was
streaming through the slats of the wooden window-blinds, and his aunt was
bustling back and forth near the stove. The warm smell of oatmeal filled the
air, and in the distance over the city the lonely wail of a trumpet broke the
silence of the morning with its somber notes. Joe rose and rubbed his eyes. Sim
and Lady were already sitting up, looking around the room with weary gazes.
“Why’s that trumpet playing?” asked
“I don’t know,” Joe answered, and
he peeked through the blinds to look up at the citadel, awash in the morning
light. The long purple banner of Prince Halbrinnon, which had been flying the
night before, was now gone.
“It’s one of the soldiers in the
keep,” their aunt explained. “He’s playing the grieving-song. One of the
officials must have died last night.”
Just then the front door swung open
and the children’s uncle walked in. His face was pale, his eyes drawn wide with
“I can’t believe it,” he groaned as
he collapsed into a chair. “They’re saying that Prince Halbrinnon is dead.”
“No!” gasped the aunt.
“Yes, it’s true. The word on the
street is that he was discovered dead in his bed this morning. No one knows
why. The officials are saying that he had a weak heart, and in his excitement
over taking the throne, it failed him.”
“What? No! No, no, no—it can’t be!”
the aunt moaned, her eyes suddenly bright with tears. “No, that can’t be true.
And—and you know what? It can’t have been his heart! No, I’ll bet that old
steward poisoned him!”
“That’s the worst part,” said the
uncle, talking freely to his wife without a second thought for the children,
who were all listening with rapt attention. “Steward Presten has declared a
country-wide state of emergency, and they say that he has taken control of the
government, at least until the Great King can be contacted.”
Joe, Sim, and Lady digested all
this information silently. They were no strangers to their uncle and aunt’s
discussions about the city’s politics. One thing they had learned, above all
else, was that Steward Presten, who had long been out of favor with the royal
house, was not someone to be trusted.
“But what about First Consul Dama?”
asked the aunt. “Shouldn’t he be in charge at a time like this?”
“That’s just it—I think the consul
has given in to the steward’s influence. If anyone ever had a weak heart, it
would be Dama, not Prince Halbrinnon! No, I just can’t believe it! How could
something like this happen?”
The aunt shook her head, and the
children saw tears tracing long trails down her cheeks. “It doesn’t seem
possible. This will change everything, won’t it? Nothing, nothing will be the
same again! All the hope we ever had was set on Prince Hal.”
The uncle stood up again, his jaw
clenched. “I won’t take it. I can’t change what happened to the Prince, but I
can stand together with the good men who will be protesting against Steward
The aunt put down her spoon and
locked her gaze on him. “If you go, I’m going too. I am all for the royal
house, and I will not bow to another!”
They seemed to remember suddenly
the three children who were watching them with wide eyes. They looked over at
Joe, Sim, and Lady.
“What about the children, dear?”
asked the uncle softly.
“Joe, love,” the aunt said, locking
gazes with the oldest boy. “We’ll be going out for the morning. You take care
of the others, now—get them their breakfast and see that the chores are done.
We’re going down to the keep for a bit, but we’ll be back soon. If you need any
help with anything, just knock on the door of kind old Mr. Willard across the
street, all right?”
Joe nodded obediently, and then
they were gone. With a sigh, he scratched his head and turned to look at his
brother and sister.
“Well, I guess it’s just us for a
few hours. Who’s hungry for some oatmeal?”
The other two nodded, and Joe set
about ladling the hot, sticky meal into a set of wooden bowls. As he was setting
them out on the table, though, his eye caught something in the center. It lay partially
hidden under a parchment on the table, but its bright gleam was unmistakable.
“A coin,” he murmured, picking it
up. “Uncle must have dropped it.”
Sim looked over his shoulder. “Hey,
that’s not just any coin. That’s one of the new ones, right? I’ve never seen it
before. Didn’t Uncle say that they had just put out a new batch of coins with
Prince Hal’s face on them?”
Sim was right; the inscription
along the edge bore the name of Halbrinnon and the other side showed the seal
of the royal house. But Joe was frozen in place, gripped by the image on the
face of the coin. He had seen a picture of Prince Hal only once before, on a
parchment-painting that had been hanging in a marketplace shop. But now that he
saw it again, he realized with astonishment that he recognized that face. He
didn’t just recognize it from the painting in the shop; no, he had seen that
face with his own eyes. This was the face of the man he had met in the street
“Joe, what’s wrong?” asked Lady. “Why
are you just standing there?”
But Joe’s mind was whirring too
fast for him to answer. If it was Prince Hal that he had seen in the street,
and if he had been leaving the city by the Shepherd’s Gate like he said, then how
could he have been found dead in his bed this morning?
Joe slipped the coin in his pocket
and turned to face Sim and Lady. His face was a picture of determination.
“Let’s eat quickly, now. We have to
go down to the keep, too.”
“Why?” asked Sim. “Auntie told us
to stay here.”
“Because Prince Hal is still alive,
and someone needs to know it.”
As if God hadn't already asked Abraham to do a whole bunch of weird, crazy things (like moving to the other side of the known world and setting up a gruesome field of animal carcasses), the next act in God's relationship with him was intensely strange. He told Abraham, and all his male heirs in perpetuity, to express their fealty to the divine covenant by slicing the foreskin off of their genitals. (But remarkably, this is still not the wildest thing God will ask Abraham to do, as the story of Isaac's sacrifice in ch. 22 will demonstrate.) Male circumcision is not an uncommon ritual, as it appears in cultures all over the world, many of which had no direct connection to this biblical imperative. The story suggests, however, that it was not a normative practice in Abraham's own culture, and thus this story begs the question of why this particular rite, with all its messiness and indignity, is the one that God chooses as the definitive marker of the covenant-relationship.
Before we get into the possible meaning behind this ritual, let's first notice that this is not a story about God simply speaking his instruction to Abraham as a disembodied voice. No, this is a story in which God clearly shows up in a visible appearance in order to talk to Abraham (see verses 1, 3, and 22 of Genesis 17). As we've already mentioned, the early Christians saw in these visible appearances of the invisible, unknowable God a clear indication of the work of the Son of God, who is and always has been the Logos, the self-expression of the Father, and "the image of the invisible God."
Now back to the question at hand: why circumcision? It goes without saying why this ritual strikes many as distasteful, so why does God elect this particular means as his chosen symbol? Why, when there were so many other noble, elegant possibilities, would he choose this gritty, pain-ridden, embarrassing act, which has nothing of dignity about it?
There are a few possible answers. One direct connection should jump off the page immediately, given the way circumcision was described in the foregoing question. It just so happens that God's plan to save the world, his ultimate expression of his eternal covenant with mankind, would be accomplished through a gritty, pain-ridden, embarrassing act, which had nothing of dignity about it. The death of Christ on the cross was bloody, shameful, and shocking. It did not suit our sense of tastefulness or elegance. And yet that was the thing God used to remake the world and claim his people forever as his own: in a word, the blood and shame of the cross led to the final "circumcision of the heart" which the ancient prophets had foreseen. The indignity of circumcision thus seems to be a good fit as a possible foreshadowing of the cross, and a further potential connection might be seen in the fact that this ritual is enacted upon the generative member of the male body. After all, it is through the biological succession from Abraham that the promise will be fulfilled. Indeed, the main promise with which Genesis 17 is concerned is the promise of a baby: in this case Isaac (the child of promise who is himself a foreshadowing of Christ). With this fact in view, it is no surprise that the biological reality of procreation, which was the means by which Abraham's family would lead to Mary and her miraculous conception, would be highlighted in the manner of the definitive covenant-act.
There's another connection to Christ here, too. God instructs Abraham that this ritual of circumcision should be performed on male babies on the eighth day. There are likely practical and medical reasons for this period of waiting; practicing surgery on newborns was not necessarily the safest thing to do. But the fact that that period of waiting was eight days was immediately seized on by the early church. Eight, as we have seen in previous studies, is the number that indicates the New Creation (for more, read my earlier article on the meaning of God's Sabbath-Rest in Genesis 2). Just as seven is the number of completeness, of the fullness of a week, eight is the day of Jesus' resurrection, the beginning of a new week of creation which commences with the re-creation of the human heart through the salvific work of Christ. Indeed, the early church father Augustine said (in reference to circumcision in Genesis 17), "What else does the eighth day mean than Christ, who rose again when the week was completed?" So the fact that the sign of the covenant was to come on the eighth day is important: it definitely points the way straight to Jesus, and to the fact that his bloody and undignified act would be the one that would usher in the promise of New Creation and of the eternal covenant of the gospel of grace.
There's one final connection to make. It's not implied in Genesis 17, but the New Testament makes a clear tie between circumcision and baptism (which is one of the reasons why paedobaptist denominations baptize infants, just as circumcision was practiced on infants). Colossians 2:11-12 says, "In [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism..." This passage not only connects circumcision with baptism, but draws out another meaning of that bloody ritual. Just as circumcision entails the "putting off" of part of the old form of the body, so also our regeneration by grace includes the putting off of an old existence and the beginning of a new one, ushered in through the blood of Christ. Circumcision, then, is a ritual of regeneration, of the change that comes from putting off the "old man" and being transformed into something new. In this sense, it is the exact parallel of baptism, which also symbolizes the dying of the old man, his burial in the immersion of the waters, and then our rising again to new life in Christ.
To put it plainly, circumcision without Jesus and without the gospel of grace would just be a weird, awkward, Bronze Age custom without much depth to its symbolism. But considered in light of Jesus' bloody, undignified sacrifice, which transforms us from an old existence into a new reality and which ratifies forever the eternal covenant of grace for us, circumcision becomes a potent, dramatic window into the salvation-plan of God.
Oh, wake, glad heart, awake, awake! And seek thy risen Lord: / Joy in his resurrection take, and comfort in his word. / And let thy life through all its ways one long thanksgiving be; / Its theme of joy, its song of praise: 'Christ died and rose for me.' - Verses 5 & 6 of the 19th-century hymn "Awake, Glad Soul," by John Samuel Bewley Monsell