Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Feast of the Circumcision

2008 Vasilopita, with a glass of wine for Agios Vasilios, to show hospitality, and a £20 note, in the hope that in the forthcoming year, with St Basil’s blessing, the money will multiply.

Καλή Χρονιά (Happy New Year) to everyone, and Χρονιά Πολλά (Best Wishes) to all Vasilides and Vassoules, since today is also the name day of Agios Vasilios o Megas/St Basil the Great (between 329 and 333 to 1 January, 379) bishop of Caesarea, theological genius; one of the three Cappadocian Fathers – the other two being Gregory Nazianzus and Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa; defender of the Nicene creed – the essential statement of Christian faith; liturgical innovator; delineator of monastic and ascetic life; and paradigmatic Christian, renowned for his charity and efforts to redeem sinners.

Indeed, Basil’s charitable nature, his eager disposal of his worldly goods, meant that – before the emergence and predomination of the northern European St Nicholas (Santa Claus) tradition – ironically, St Nicholas is another Greek saint from Cappadocia known for parting with his worldly goods – New Year and not Christmas used to be the pre-eminent Greek gift-giving festival.

(Still, the Greek tradition of the Vasilopita [the New Year’s or, literally, the Basil cake] continues, with the ritualised cutting of the cake – cross the cake three times with the knife, cut the first piece for Jesus, the second for St Basil, the third for lady of the house, the fourth for the youngest in the house, then the next youngest and so on; and the placing of a coin (flouri) in the cake prior to baking – the winner of which is granted good fortune for the forthcoming year – which apparently recalls the incident when Basil saved the church treasury from plunder by baking coins in small loaves and then distributing the bread to the congregation).

Today is also the Feast of the Circumcision, commemorating Jesus’ circumcision, the first occasion on which he shed his blood for humanity, performed, according to Jewish law, when a boy was eight days old.

Of course, circumcision did not catch on among early Christians, and for this we must thank the Greeks – first targets of the Jewish apostles and evangelisers – who regarded the ritual as barbaric, something akin to castration.

Indeed, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, when the Greek Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires flourished in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, circumcision became one of the symbolic issues which split the Jews, between the so-called Jewish Hellenisers – those Jews attracted to and influenced by the more prestigious and hegemonic culture of the Greeks – and the Jewish nationalists, resisters of the Greek way of life.

One of the most important components of Greek culture (which the Greeks took with them to the colonies and conquered territories) was the gymnasium, an open-air public arena that combined physical and intellectual training and, in later manifestations, came to resemble a gentleman’s or country club, where city elites gathered to relax, socialise and discuss politics and business.

During physical training, the Greeks, as is well known, liked to exercise gymnos (nude). As such, male gymnasts valued their foreskins – a long, tapered foreskin was regarded as the most attractive – and regarded exposure of the glans as obscene. Greeks, therefore, were offended or amused when Jewish gymnasts turned up in the gymnasium and exercised with their glans on display.

Ambitious Jews, to make their presence more acceptable in Greek gymnasia, would often undergo an epispasm, a surgical procedure that stretched the foreskin to cover the glans, a circumcision in reverse; proof to fundamentalist Jews of the erosion of adherence to Jewish law and the penetration of Greek cultural standards. Jewish reactionaries were also scandalised by the brazen nudity on show at Greek gymnasia, which they regarded as immoral and shameful.

The tension among Jews induced by contact with Greek culture reflected Jewish class conflict, between a Jewish urban elite – more attracted and susceptible to syncreticism and Greek culture – and the more fanatical anti-Greek Jewish masses and rural population.

Eventually, increasing resentment and agitation among the Jewish lower classes prompted a crackdown by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which led to even fiercer Jewish resistance to Hellenism and the Maccabean war – which has gone down in Jewish history as a triumph of Jewish purists over Jewish Hellenisers and is the basis of the annual Hanukah festival.

Anyway, in the early years of Christianity, this Greek aversion to circumcision – reflecting residual Greek sensuality and love of the human form, horror at bodily mutilation and concern that the practice was too Jewish – meant that some of the worst Jewish prejudices did not find their way into Christian ritual and thinking – if circumcision was an act of ritual cleansing, as the Jews maintained, then, according to Christian propagandists, such as St Paul, it is the heart not the penis or any other bodily appendage that should be circumcised/cleansed – of pride, vanity and all the rest of it.

Nevertheless, six centuries later, Jewish doctrine and practice found more fertile ground in the Arabian desert, among Mohammed and his followers, who accepted with a vengeance the Jewish repulsion for the human body and fear of human sexuality.