Fr. Dale Matson
The Heart Of The Matter
Tradition and the 1928 prayer book call Sunday January 1st (2017), “Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord”, not Holy Name Sunday (1979 BCP). I certainly realize there is a relationship. A baby boy is given his Jewish name at the ritual circumcision. The name chosen by the parents is considered prophetic. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
I would like to focus as much on the “circumcision" aspect as the “name” part especially because the 1928 opening collect which I would like to include, refers to a circumcision of the heart. Right now the heart is a big issue for me and I want to explore this further. The Christian life consists in much more than taking care of our body. As many of you know, my best friend Phil died of a heart attack a month ago and I had two stents placed in an artery to my heart last week. The night following my procedure my blood pressure became very high and then became extremely low. The crash cart and several nurses later, I was stable again. I believe your prayers helped the medical team make good decisions and act decisively. I can’t begin to say how important family including our brothers and sisters from St. James have helped. Lani Borgwardt who recently had a stent placed following her heart attack sent me an encouraging email the morning of my procedure. My grandsons left hand made get well cards on our doorstep. Sharon was there to pray and wait. So many people have shown their concern.
In our opening collect for this Sunday from the 1928 Prayer book, we hear,” ALMIGHTY God, who made thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man; Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” The circumcision of Jesus was symbolic in his shedding of blood, obedience to the Law and a preview of his future sacrifice. His circumcision also underscores his humanity.
God’s intent is that circumcision of the flesh represents a much deeper circumcision of the heart. In our Gospel lesson Luke states, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (2:19). Later, Luke states again “and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:51b).
When we hear of Mary the mother of Jesus, we often think of the phrase, “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” While her womb was important and necessary, in fact, God chose her not because of her womb but because of her heart, her immaculate heart. It is the sacred heart of Christ and the immaculate heart of Mary. When Luke states that Mary pondered things in her heart, he is also drawing a relationship to Mary’s mind. Scripture often uses the heart and mind interchangeably.
Modern medicine is more focused on the heart as a pump but the heart is so much more than that. The ancient Greeks thought of the heart as the seat of the emotions. The Chinese also connect the organs to the emotions. People can die of a broken heart over the death of someone they love. An example of this is the recent death of Debbie Reynolds who died the day following the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher.
Dr. Vijai P. Sharma stated “The heart is also a hormonal organ. Among other hormones, it produces one, which is labeled by some as the "balancing hormone," because it contributes to the balancing of other hormones. This same hormone can facilitate the reduction or increase of stress hormones. The heart may also be responsible for the production of "Oxytocin," fondly referred to as the "love hormone. The love hormone plays an important part in our emotional and social development. For example, Oxytocin is in action when a mother feeds and tends her child. Compassion, caring, love, appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness and other behaviors that are the fabric of our family and society, may have a lot to do with how well the heart is functioning at the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels.” http://www.mindpub.com/art411.htm
So is it that our heart is the victim of stress and becomes damaged? Scripture does state that in the last days men’s hearts will fail them from fear. (Luke 21:26) But the heart is also the source of stress. “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45).
We often hear of a “heart healthy diet” and I can say that I have been pretty careful about what I eat. I have also gotten more than adequate exercise and adequate rest. I have kept a personal journal and even recorded my exercise sessions and heart rates for nearly 25 years. While my conduct and life style have been ‘heart healthy’ these last 25 years, my interior life has remained unhealthy. I want to be clear here and state that I am speaking about myself and not generalizing to others. St. Teresa of Calcutta died of heart disease.
One could blame heredity but both of my folks died of cancer in their 90’s. So what is the source of my heart problem? Jesus stated, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” I have defeated the life giving medicine of Jesus in my life. I am a worrier. While I have been careful about the food I eat, and my exercise, I have not been careful about the information to which I have exposed myself. I have been careful about what I put in my mouth but not what I have allowed access to my brain through my eyes and ears. I have actively sought out things that trouble me. The action movies that I like are also violent. I have actively sought out things that stir me up and make me angry. I have majored in minors. I more often listen to Rock and Roll groups that advocate things I am against instead of Mozart or Brahms. Generally, those who are impatient, angry and controlling have more heart problems and that is me also. In a sense, I have been a willing participant in compromising my health and well-being. The late Christian psychiatrist Carl Menninger wrote a book called “Man Against Himself” where he discussed how the residue of original sin continues to influence our thoughts, decisions and actions.
It doesn’t seem to me that there is much difference than what God referred to numerous times as those with uncircumcised hearts and what St. Paul describes in Roman chapter seven. The person in Romans chapter seven can be described as the carnal Christian. The carnal Christian does not do what his or her mind says is the right thing to do. The carnal Christian continues to do what he or she knows is the wrong thing to do. It is only by the counsel and empowerment of God the Holy Spirit that we overcome this self-destructive behavior. This self destructive behavior was so firmly entrenched with me that I had to pray for two years just to get the desire to quit smoking. January 10th will be my 34th anniversary of quitting smoking and my eight-year anniversary in Holy Orders.
So what is the medicine God has prescribed for folks who need circumcision of the heart? Let’s look at some of Mary’s qualities. She was humble and full of grace. An arrogant person is more vulnerable and more easily insulted than the humble person. The gracious person is not the self-righteous cop ever vigilant and looking for others to mess up. Mary was holy and filled with piety. She trusted in God and persevered in the face of great sorrow. She had a love in her heart for her son Jesus and for God.
Anglican Priest John Wesley stated, “…Circumcision of heart implies humility, faith, hope, and charity. Humility, a right judgment of ourselves, cleanses our minds from those high conceits of our own perfection, from that undue opinion of our own abilities and attainments, which are the genuine fruit of a corrupted nature.” The uncircumcised heart is full of arrogance, conceit and pride.
Let’s look at the heart medicine God has provided with His “Fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23). "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." It is the fruits of the spirit that circumcise the heart of the Christian. As Jesus noted, “You shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:20). Does this mean I will disregard my doctor’s prescriptions? Does this mean I will ignore my doctor and throw away my blood thinner, blood pressure medicine, and cholesterol reducer? Of course it doesn’t.
St. Paul states in Romans, “…a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person's praise is not from other people, but from God. (2:29). Are you a ‘Law abiding Christian or a Christian filled with grace like Mary our spiritual mother?
Circumcision of the heart is allowing God to turn this stony heart into a heart of flesh. In Ezekiel God states, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26).
The prophet Jeremiah stated, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh— Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”
Where is our heart in all of this? Do we secretly find joy in the suffering of others who offend us? Do we lack compassion for those less fortunate? Do we remain silent when others swear using our Lord’s name? What topics occupy much of our thought life? In Alcoholics Anonymous, this is called “Stinking Thinking”. I am disobedient and sin because I worry. St. Paul said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Are you circumcised of heart? We say in our ‘Collect for Purity’, “Lord, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts”. While love is the primary ingredient of a pure heart, St. Paul offers the best counsel on what should be on our minds. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8, NASB)
“Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15) Does fear of death guide and direct our lives?
The more I age and my health declines, the more the following passage comes to mind. “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:3) At one time I had great confidence in my flesh and this prideful confidence was a source of distance between me and God and even my brothers and sisters.
Lord, let us begin this new year with circumcised hearts that we would have humility, faith, hope and love; that our confidence would rest in You alone. Amen