#1 What’s up with this holiday?
You may have noticed multiple names for today’s holiday. Its official name in modern Anglican calendars is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. You may have seen it labeled as “the octave day of Christmas” (meaning the 8th day of Christmas), and you may also have heard of it as the Feast of the Circumcision. Indeed, this holiday is all three of those things, and picking which of those names should be the primary name is (to some degree) a matter of preference.
Whatever name you want to go with, though, this is a very important holiday. It is very rare for liturgy to mimic history in real time. On Palm Sunday through Holy Week into Easter Day the liturgy walks through Jesus’ week in Jerusalem, crucifixion, death, and resurrection in real time. The feasts of Ascension and Pentecost take place 40 and 50 days after Easter, also matching the timing of those events in real time. The Annunciation to Mary, when Jesus was conceived, is celebrated 9 months before Christmas. And this holiday, the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, takes place on the 8th day of Jesus’ infancy. Whatever this naming and circumcision is all about, it must be very important!
You can trace some changes of emphasis even within our own Anglican tradition if you compare the two Collects (theme-prayers) for this holiday. The traditional one focuses on the circumcision of Christ and applies it theologically to the human condition and the Gospel. The modern one emphasizes more that we bear God’s name and are to worship and proclaim him. A number of the hymns that we’re singing this morning are meditations on the name of Jesus – the power and authority and majesty contained therein. But the Scripture readings deal more with the subject of his circumcision, and so that is what I would like to focus on now.
#2 What is circumcision?
Circumcision is the removal of the male’s foreskin. It has been argued that there may be some medical benefits to this practice, particularly for desert living, but some doctors today seem to be in disagreement over this. It came to be practiced by many other people-groups in the Middle East, so it wasn’t entirely unique to the Jews, and it’s a practice that also exists in entirely non-religious contexts to this day.
Something interesting worth pointing out about the physical practice of circumcision is that it is the removal of an essentially extraneous bit of skin. This makes it a useful analogy for the removal of sin from the human heart, which becomes a prominent theme for some of the Old Testament Prophets speaking of an “inward circumcision” of the heart.
#3 Where did the practice of circumcision come from?
It begins in our first reading in the Morning Prayer service, Genesis 17:1-13, when the great Covenant with Abraham is made. There, both aspects of today’s holiday show up: God bestows a name, and orders the practice of circumcision. Abram is renamed to Abraham; the former meaning “exalted father,” looking back to his noble ancestors, and the new name meaning “father of a multitude,” looking ahead to God’s covenant promises. Circumcision is given as a sign of that covenant. Like the rainbow after the flood, circumcision was a visible reminder of the promise that God made; and even more than that, it was a pledge for the circumcised man and his family that God’s promises would be extended to them. And so all Abraham’s descendants through Isaac were to be circumcised as well, as recipients of God’s promises. And, as we heard in Romans 2, circumcision continued to be a major feature of the covenant given through Moses.
#4 What does it mean to be circumcised?
Staying with Romans 2 for a moment, we find that circumcision, as a sign and pledge of the covenant from God, came with a set of expectations as well. Covenants come with blessings from God as well as lawful demands from God, and so to be circumcised was to become obligated to keep the Law. Thus circumcision was not a guarantee of salvation; the Law had to be obeyed, and when it was broken, sacrifices had to be offered. Thus, the Prophets began to speak of the concept of “true circumcision” which is “of the heart.”
The first reading from the Communion service, Exodus 34:1-9, brings us back to the giving of the Covenant through Moses more specifically. There we are explicitly told that God is just and demands holiness, that all people are sinful, in need of forgiveness, and that yet, God takes us for an inheritance. This is a hint of the blessed doctrine of adoption, and sets us up with a great measure of hope, because even though we fail to keep the requirements of God, he has made promises to make us his own despite our worst efforts.
#5 What’s the significance of Jesus getting circumcised?
This is where Law really begins to give way to Gospel! First of all, when Jesus was circumcised, the lawgiver became subject to his law. How many other “gods” can say the same? A god is an untouchable, unquestionable, totally mysterious, above all that we can know or fathom. A god’s ways are secret, incomprehensible… how could a god dare humble himself to become obedient to an earthly law? What scandal! What humility! Oh, but what love for his creation that God would do such a thing!
Circumcision brought Jesus into the covenant and under the Law. As St. Paul wrote in Galatians 4, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5). You see, Jesus uniquely obeyed the Law of Moses. Everyone else sins and falls short, but Jesus kept it perfectly. Not only does this prove his own sinlessness, but also allows him to redeem others condemned by the law. Because Jesus kept the law, the law has no power to convict him on judgment day. Therefore, when he stepped forward to offer himself on the Cross to die on behalf of others, his sacrifice was actually meaningful. If I were to offer myself to die for your sins, it wouldn’t count, because I have my own sins that send me to the death penalty. But Jesus, having kept the Law, and also being God of infinite goodness, holiness, and worth, is able to offer himself on the Cross for the sins of the whole world. Thus Jesus fulfills, brings, and dispenses all the covenant promises made to Abraham, to Moses, and to David.
#6 What does this say about us?
Circumcision was a sign and seal of the Old Covenants, both reminding people of God’s promises and marking them as God’s own. But what about now? Let’s hear from St. Paul again, this time from Colossians 2:11-14.
In Christ you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
What we find here is that we have received circumcision, not “made with hands,” as in the Old Testament, but by being buried with Christ in baptism, and being “raised with him through faith.” Christian Baptism is the New Covenant replacement for Old Covenant circumcision. If you think about the baptismal rite, you’ll find it very similar to what Jesus underwent in Luke 2:21 – the candidate for baptism is named, watered, and “signed” or “sealed” by the Holy Spirit as Christ’s own.
As circumcision is for all who’ll live in Israel, Baptism is for all who call the church home. Both are the entry rite to join the covenant community. Every Jewish male was commanded to be circumcised, and every foreigner who agreed to live in Israel was to be circumcised. Similarly, as it says in Galatians 3:27, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” It’s our sign and pledge of the New Covenant, of union with Christ now, instead of with Moses.
As for the old act of physical circumcision, we have no command to continue practicing it. In fact, Paul expected it to stop altogether because its meaning is obsolete. Since circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant, receiving circumcision meant being bound to the Old Covenant. But since salvation is in Christ alone, practicing circumcision as a religious rite would be taking a step backwards. Non-religious circumcision is fine, the New Covenant doesn’t make picky demands along those lines. But there is no Christian reason to have anyone circumcised.
It’s also worth noting that, even though Baptism is the new covenant’s circumcision, it’s still not a magical guarantee of salvation. Baptism is not our go-to-heaven-free card. The “obedience of faith” mentioned in Romans 1 and the “mortification of the flesh” mentioned in the traditional Collect are still necessary for the Christian life. But a major part of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus’ circumcision and obedience to the Law, and his resulting spotless record and character before the divine judgement, is given to all the faithful. We need not fear the condemnation of the law, for when we enter into his New Covenant and faithfully acknowledge his all-sufficient sacrifice on the Cross in our place, his perfect righteousness is imputed unto us. What we cannot grasp or earn, Christ offers to us. If we are too proud to receive it, then we perish in our sins. But if we enter into the obedience of faith and kneel before our Lord who was bound to the Law despite the glorious Name he’d already received in eternity, then no sin is too great that God cannot forgive.
The circumcision of our Lord, an event that brings everyone else into condemnation of sin, instead began a life of perfect righteousness that he died and rose again in order to share with us. Let us press through this life’s mortification of our sins and reach for that prize that he won for us on the Cross. Let us truly keep the “Christ” in Christian.