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The Good News of the Circumcision

Since at least the 6th Century, Christians have remembered the 8th day of Christmas (January 1st) as the Feast of the Circumcision, in remembrance of the Lord’s Circumcision in Luke, Chapter Two.

“And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

(Luke 2:21 ESV)

Over the last fifty years, most communions have transitioned to calling this the Feast of the Holy Name, but either way, the subject of this Feast is the same: the good news of the savior, even as a baby, taking on the demands of the law and covenants of God, shedding blood, and taking up a human name. You and I live in a time in which the very idea of keeping a family tradition of thousands of years seems barbaric, especially when it involves circumcision. Most people create new rituals and dismantle the old ones. Nothing in this event was made up. Everything from the name of Jesus to his circumcision was God-given. Even though it is certainly possible to say that Jesus willed all of this, we can equally say that it was something chosen for him, by his parents, and by the will of the Father.

No parent can forget the first time their first baby shed blood. It’s horrifying to even think about. We know, as soon as we see it, that all our hopes for the baby, that this baby will be perpetually healthy, that this baby will outlive us, even that this baby will live forever without pain, are probably foolish. Another generation is born to die, and another generation has already failed. Consider, however, what the circumcision means: that this time, all of that hope is re-cast in a new light, this child being bound to the covenant of his people, not to fail, but to keep the will of God, to fulfill the law perfectly, even to defeat death itself.

After all, the name given by the Angel to Mary which was given to him on that day was Jesus, God saves, showing that he would lead his people into a new land of promise, into a new identity, even one that would overflow the boundaries of that particular nation, being a promise for all nations. In Jesus, the Jewish nation is brought to her new vocation: to be exactly what was foretold to Abraham, a blessing to every nation on the earth. So this circumcision is performed on the eighth day, to show that Jesus is sent to fulfill the old covenant, as well as usher in a new one through his body. Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes of this:

“It was the custom on the eighth day to perform the circumcision of the flesh. For on the eighth day Christ rose from the dead, and conveyed to us a spiritual circumcision, saying ‘Go and teach all nations, baptizing them.’

But according to the command of the law, on the same day He received the imposition of a name, as it follows, His name was called Jesus which is interpreted Savior. For He was brough forth for the salvation of the whole world, which by His circumcision He prefigured, as the Apostle says to the Colossians ‘you are circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the stripping off of the body of the flesh, to wit, the circumcision of Christ.’” (Col. 2:11)

Whether Paul was talking about the Lord’s circumcision on the eighth day, or his death and resurrection on the eighth day is unknown. This is the bit of rhetorical fun that Cyril is having to illustrate the point: the first circumcision points to the second, and it is very good news: the news that God has sent a savior, and not one who stands apart from those he is set to save, but who joins himself fully to sinful humanity, in order to redeem it fully. The circumcision, as Thomas Aquinas puts it: “proves the reality of his human nature,” a message which is entirely appropriate to the celebration of Christmas.

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