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The Very Rev. Paul F. M. Zahl The Very Rev. Paul F. M. Zahl

The Very Rev. Dr. Paul F. M. Zahl is a retired Episcopal priest who has served as rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, MD, and dean and president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, Ambridge, PA.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

All Saints Episcopal Church, Chevy Chase, MD


Passion for Penultimates

Galatians 6:14-18

September 28, 1997

A common question today: What are your passions in life? What do you get excited about? Could it be model airplanes? Or your garden? Or music, your music? Or your children -- protecting their interests, glorying in their successes, weeping over their disappointments? Or that aspect of your otherwise flat career that got you interested in it in the first place? Or your grievances? What turns on the power? What pushes your button?

For St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, there seems to be only one thing worth really getting excited about. It is a good exercise to look at our passions in the light of his.

St. Paul writes in Galatians, Chapter Six, Verse 15: "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation." He contrasts two relatively important things, circumcision and its opposite, uncircumcision, with one absolutely important thing, the new creation. He contrasts two penultimates, or secondary things, with one ultimate, or primary thing. This relates directly to our own passions, the role they play in our lives and their power, or lack of it, to take us where we wish to go.

In the Bible, circumcision was a badge of national identity. It was a defining physical characteristic. It was part of Jewish identity. To grasp the importance of Paul's dismissal of circumcision here, to which it "counts for nothing," we can simply take anything about ourselves in reference to which we define ourselves. Members of the Confederate Army who marched with Pickett at Gettysburg said they were fighting for "Virginia" or "Mississippi." They were fighting for their state!

We could say, along that line, that Charleston, South Carolina is a great place to live, but it's not a great religion. "Circumcision" is anything by which you define yourself. It becomes a passion when it is challenged, when that aspect of it which has captured your identity is challenged. For millions of teenagers, the likeness of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, who killed himself in 1994, is a sort of "badge of national identity." A T-shirt with Cobain's face on it can be the fighting point for innumerable young teenagers. Or take your family crest ring. Or even your college ring. Circumcision in the New Testament is anything that is visible and definite which defines you. For St. Paul, circumcision is penultimate, or secondary. It is transitory and passing, therefore, unworthy of enduring honor.

Un-circumcision in the Bible was a badge of negative national identity. It is defined un-closeness and stood over against closeness. We can illustrate un-circumcision by describing the young woman whose father and mother had always cherished the hope that she would move to New York after college, become an unemployed actress, singer, or dancer, and have to wait on tables at night for her "money-job." So strong was their hope, yet so oppressive to her, that their daughter decided to show them! Instead of going to New York and following their star, she resolved to get herself admitted to Harvard Law School -- which she did -- and become a top Wall-Street attorney in one of those "Rolls-Royce" law firms down on Lower Broadway. She did. She 'showed them'! The illustration is ironic. Everybody knows the power of rebellion.

Everybody knows how our life can be governed as much by re-action as by action, and hence by un-circumcision as by circumcision.

You can define yourself by an act of conformity, or "circumcision" or you can define yourself by an act of confirmation when you grow up, look after your parents in their old age and 'do the right thing' -- all of which could be likened to circumcision. Or you can leave town, resolve never to come back, except for maybe two funerals, and live your life in the psychic equivalent of the west coast of Alaska. You can go 'about as far as you can go.' All of which could be likened to un-circumcision. In short you can become totally passionate about self-definition. In either case, 'positively' expressed or 'negatively' expressed, you are, according to Paul acting out the quest for ultimacy in terms of penultimacy. You are seeking for what counts in the guise of things that do not count. You are questing what endures by means of things that will pass away.

Thus Paul declares that "neither circumcision counts for anything, nor un-circumcision." Late in his letter to the Philippians, Paul reviews his own circumcision, and the things that pertain to it, as follows: "circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel; of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee; as to zeal a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law blameless. Whichever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."(3:3-8). Paul then refers to every one of penultimate identifying marks and achievements as "so much garbage"!

The point is, penultimates are just that. They fall short of the ultimate. The ultimate for St. Paul is the "new creation." He means, by this, a whole new life. This is the life settled upon a rock that cannot be shaken or taken away.

An analogy can be drawn from the title of C.S. Lewis' 13th Chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, "Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time." The subject there is the Christ-figure Aslan's dying to make up the shortfalls and bitter disappointments of the world's search for penultimate goods. Aslan dies for the sin of the world, which is its compulsive identification with secondary entities as the means for our salvation. Lewis contrasts this "deep magic", which is the bondage latent to being human, with the title of Chapter 15: "Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of time." There in Chapter 15, he describes the resurrection of Christ, (i.e. Aslan), and the making of all things new.

For Lewis, as for St. Paul in the Scripture, the chance for newness is the thing, in comparison to which all else, penultimate in every single case, falls to the ground. "Let's give ?em something to talk about", (John Hiatt); a new creation!

Over to you, then. What are your penultimates? What are you passionate about? What are you passionate about in the way of your defining characteristic? What constitutes your self-righteousness? That is your circumcision. And what are you passionate about in the way of negation? Where does your bitterness turn over, again and again and where does your self-pity brood? Does it give you life? Or the feeling of life, for a time? That is your un-circumcision. If St. Paul is right, if all these things are in the service of "The Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time"; if all these things are doomed to be shaken and fall; if none of them can deliver what you think it promises, then they are all tragic illusions, the never-ending turnstile of futility. Rats in a cage!

Fortunately for us, we have been given something to talk about. Which is the new creation, the open door to the "deeper magic," pardon and beginning of Spring, the salvation of God, which is Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with Thee, O Father Almighty, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.


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