Until 1970, the Roman Church celebrated the circumcision of Christ on January 1st. An all but innocent change of scheduleSource: © Where did the Feast of the Holy Foreskin go?
Counting time is no mean feat. Because we know that if the Moon, with the return of its pretty quarters, has all the air of a clock, misfortune wants that the Sun, which presides over the seasons, does not really have an appointment with it. The history of the calendar is therefore that of a tinkering, tirelessly amended, to try to bring the Moon and the Sun into agreement: in other words, to synchronize the weeks and the months with the climatic alternation of the seasons.
If the tinkering is bad and you rely too much on the Moon, you end up having strawberries in February — which disconcerts the farmer. The Romans groped for a long time before Julius Caesar, advised by the Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes, put in place the so-called “Julian” calendar. It was therefore necessary to wait until the year 47 BC for us to have an instrument for the annual measurement of time which would allow, with the minimum of cyclical correction — one day added to each fourth year — to harvest the blueberries at the appropriate calendar page. The month of “July” preserves in its name — Julius — the memory of the great work, slightly corrected in 1 under Pope Gregory XIII.
Granting the length of the year to the solar course of the seasons was, of course, the most important step, but it had been necessary to agree on the moment of its beginning. To mark this, we “naturally” had the choice between the spring resumption of vegetation (which first seduced the Romans) and the return of light from the winter solstice – moment adopted from the year 153 of the ancient era. Finally, it was necessary to divide the length of the month into manageable sequences.
If the Greeks had the decade, borrowed from the Egyptians, the Romans gradually adopted the week, well tuned to the Moon and dear to the founding myth of the Hebrews. Although the Roman New Year chose its natural marks on the side of the solstice (feast of Sol invictus, “unconquered sun”), he took care to stand out from it by having himself officially celebrated, eight days later, on the feast of Janus.
Old Gate Deity (janua) and passages, Janus was celebrated at the beginning of each monthly cycle. He will finally give his name to the month which opens the passage of the whole year, thus becoming Januarius, our month of “January”. The Roman Empire, as we know, gradually became Christianized. The gods slipped away to other empyreans. Only a few names have remained (Mercury, Venus…), which dot the days of the week without our knowledge. Two-faced Janus no longer had the weight, he took the door and cleared the space at the very beginning of the calendar.
But Jesus Christ, for lack of documents, was precisely in search of the anniversary of his birth. It is therefore quite naturally that culture, having become Christian, chooses to fix its Dies natalis (Christmas) at the solstitial point where once triumphed unconquered ground. The culture, however, does not like colors that are too “natural”. The reappearing light, the birth of a child—even if it were the divine son of a virgin—remain too directly familiar evidence to forcefully mark the break of the year. Jesus, fortunately, had had the good idea to be born a Jew, that is to say, promised to circumcision—a mark by which the body, having become a sign, escapes all natural evidence.
In the Hebrew myth, this cut is imposed by God on Abraham. Pledge of registration in the group, it goes hand in hand with the story of Isaac's sacrifice. Elected by God, Abraham is placed at the head of an innumerable posterity. Symbolically dispossessed of a son, carnally orphaned of a foreskin, he is nevertheless kept within human limits. Of the three monotheisms, only the Christian gradually separated from circumcision. Gradually, because the first disciples of Jesus were, of course, Jews, and he himself never detached himself from the law of Moses. It will take a long time for the baptismal ritual and the notion of “circumcision of the heart”, recalled by Paul of Tarsus from Deuteronomy. But this metaphor, which makes the distinction between circumcised and uncircumcised obsolete, in no way invalidates the old rite. The most official Christian theology (that, for example, of Thomas Aquinas) has always professed that circumcision, by itself, already erases the "original sin". This did not prevent the slaying of a few Jews. But at least the filiation between the new Alliance and the old remained strongly affirmed.
The celebration of Christmas on the date of December 25 is attested for the first time in the year 354. And the least we can say is that the decision to commemorate the birth of Jesus instead of the old solstice feast, rather than on the day of Janus, had nothing innocent about it. Because, strictly speaking, this means that Jesus was born before Jesus Christ: namely, seven days before the beginning of the Christian era.
In other words, what structurally pivots between the old era and the new is the circumcision of Jesus and not his birth by Mary. The beginning of Christian time is thus umbilical at the heart of the most important of the rituals of Judaism. The theology of the origins clearly felt that God could not incarnate himself in denial. Jesus, born a Jew and legitimized, for Christians, by the Jewish prophetic texts, could not be withdrawn, on the eighth day, from the most sacred ritual of the Jews — the one which embodies, at the cost of a loss, the covenant with God .
The counting of days being what it is, the indefiniteness of origins is articulated at the same time to that of the end of time, on either side of the fixed point represented by the cut of the divine foreskin (years “ BC” and years “AD”). Whether we know it or not doesn't change anything. A symbolic system does not need permission to frame us.
From the VIIIe century, for all of Christendom, the case was settled. At unconquered ground had succeeded Christmas, and old Janus, to the 1er January, had given way to the party “of the Circumcision and of the HolyForeskin (Sic) of Our Lord”. That at least until the theological bug of 1er January 1970. Because, on this date, the feast of the Circumcision discreetly passes by the wayside in favor of that of " Sainte Marie mother of God"… What had happened for the Apostolic and Roman Catholic Church to suddenly, and almost clandestinely, renounce one of its strongest symbolic marks? In the absence of an explanation, we are forced to underline the perfect coherence, alas, of the chronology and of the worst logic. Everything happens as if, carried along by the conciliar spirit, the Church had failed to be reconciled as in spite of itself with the Jews. By qualifying the accusation of “deicide”, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) cast a spell over the “Jewish treachery” dear to the prayers of Good Friday. Recognizing his filiation, the Roman Church had gone so far as to call for a “fraternal dialogue” with Judaism by recognizing, following Paul, “that it feeds on the root of the frank olive tree on which have been grafted the branches of the wild olive tree which are the Gentiles” (Vatican II, October 28, 1965).
At the council, voices had already been raised suggesting that John XXIII be canonized by acclamation (as in those times when the people of God had precedence over his administration). There was danger in the house. Paul VI, with all Vatican skill, had thwarted the maneuver by hastening to open a classic beatification procedure for John XXIII at the same time as for the highly contested Pius XII. It is less than five years after the conciliar “reconciliation”, it must be noted, and under the pontificate of this same Paul VI, that the feast of the Circumcision deserted the Roman liturgical calendar for good. The impact of their act (worthy of Trotsky's ablation from the Stalinist albums) could not have escaped the professional liturgists who discreetly tampered with the Christian symbolism of the First of the Year. This is a deliberate decision that belies any good intention otherwise displayed. Because, although of great theological stupidity, this little villainy is not without significance. It is nothing less than a genealogical mutilation. Of a symbolic parricide. Of a disavowal of filiation. Is Catholic identity so vacillating that it cannot do without denial?
Francis Martens, An anthropologist by training, teaches postgraduate psychoanalysis at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL), Belgium.