“And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus.” St. Luke 2:21
By Mark Michael
I will never forget how I came to know all about circumcision. I was in the fourth-grade class at Vacation Bible School at Saint John’s Church. In our little town, the ecumenical Bible School was a big deal, and there were about twenty of us nine-year-olds gathered around tables in a corner of the Fellowship Hall. Our teacher was Mrs. Truax, a dignified, silver-haired lady who taught Sunday School at Saint John’s for a half-century.
We had memory verses each day at Bible School, and there was a little prize if you could recite it back the next day. And that day’s memory verse was from Galatians, “neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” Looking back, it was a rather complicated text for a nine-year-old, though maybe not so hard to memorize. The thing was, I didn’t know what the text was talking about. I had some vague understanding that circumcision was a religious term, like intercession or consecration. This was my chance to get the matter cleared up.
So, I raised my hand and asked, “Mrs. Truax, what is circumcision?” And her face blanched and she began looking around, as if to make sure that none of the other classes had heard. She then ordered all the girls to leave the room, and then proceeded, in hushed tones, to give us boys who remained behind a pretty straightforward explanation. It was by far the most dramatic thing that ever happened in my decade or so of children’s religious education. And you can bet that every boy—and every girl, for that matter—who was there never has forgotten what circumcision is.
Mrs. Truax’s embarrassment about circumcision, one of the oldest religious ceremonies of God’s people, is not unusual. The feast we celebrate today, January 1, has only been called “The Feast of the Holy Name” since the publication of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Before that, for Anglicans around the world, it was the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Along similar lines, the petition in the Great Litany that asks that we be delivered by “thy holy Nativity and Circumcision” was swapped out in the current prayer book for “thy holy Nativity and submission to the Law.”
Now there’s nothing inherently problematic about those substitutions. The circumcision was, in fact, the first of many actions by which our Lord lived a life of submission to God’s law. And today’s Gospel arguably places just as much emphasis on Mary and Joseph’s child receiving the Holy Name of Jesus, which means ‘God saves,’ as it does on his circumcision, which provides the occasion for the announcement of the Name.
A liturgical commentary I consulted said that the change was made, “not out of modesty, but in order to emphasize the religious significance of the occasion, in a culture where most newborn males are routinely circumcised for alleged hygienic reasons.” Given my experience as a fourth grader, I guess you’ll have to put me down as less than convinced.
To be sure, no little Jewish boy of Jesus’ time or our own who had spent as much time hanging around his synagogue as I had around the church would have failed to grasp the religious significance of circumcision. Still today, Jewish boys are circumcised promptly on the eighth day after their birth, at a public ceremony called a bris.
Some of you may remember a touching article that appeared in the Post last January, about a Jewish family in DC who went to great lengths to ensure that their son’s bris could be held on the proper day, right in the middle of “Snowmaggedon.” They’d ferried the mohel, the person who performs the circumcision, from across town through the storm after Metro had shut down. Seventy people had fought their way to the synagogue to be present for the ceremony. These include Joyce Stern, a 77-year old member of the congregation who had walked three quarters of a mile leaning on her cane to be there. We had cancelled Sunday services at Saint Timothy’s, and I have to admit that 77-year old woman left me feeling a little guilty about it.
“It is important to us that our son enter the Jewish people in the same way his ancestors who were born Jewish or chose to be Jewish entered into the covenant,” said Rabbi Aaron Alexander, the father of the little boy, who was named Amos at the ceremony. God had told Abraham even before his promised child was born, “every male among you shall be circumcised…my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” The command to circumcise on the eighth day after birth was revealed later, in the law God gave to Moses.
Mary and Joseph arranged for their infant son’s circumcision on the proper day because they were pious and faithful Jews, keeping the law God had given to their ancestors. Jesus was unmistakably Jewish, something Christians have sometimes forgotten too quickly.
Saint Paul is pointing to this fact when he wrote, in our Epistle lesson, that Christ was born “under the law.” Circumcision was the first act of obedience to God’s law in a faithful Jewish man’s life. It pointed to a deep commitment to knowing and performing God’s will, a surrender of one’s own life to God’s purposes. In Deuteronomy, Moses urges the Israelites to return to God and to live in full conformity to His law. “Circumcise your hearts,” he says, “and be no longer stiff-necked.” He’s made circumcision into a potent metaphor, something for men and women alike, and not just for the beginning of life but for its entirety.
Christ came to this world in obedience to the Father’s will, and His entire life is one of continual submission to the law, a full circumcision of the heart. He who had revealed the law in power to Moses chose to live under it, in strict obedience to it. The words that the author of the Book of Hebrews puts on Christ’s lips are entirely accurate, “I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.” In his words and deeds and above all, in His willingness to suffer, Christ handed Himself over to the Father, always faithful to the covenant. Remember His words in the Garden, “not my will, but thine be done.”
This inner vocation is made public here, at the table of circumcision, when for the first time, the infant Jesus sheds His blood, an action that Christian commentators have long marked out as deeply significant. He receives the name Jesus, which means “God saves.” But this is how God will save, as a man who sheds His own blood to fulfill the Father’s will. He will be obedient to the Covenant and faithful to the law, by offering His own life for the sins of the world.
His circumcision, then, points directly to His Cross. Milton’s sonnet, Upon the Circumcision, explains it this way:
He, that dwelt above
High-throned in secret bliss, for us frail dust
emptied his glory, even to nakedness…
And seals obedience first with wounding smart
This day; but oh! ere long,
Huge pangs and strong
Will pierce more near his heart.
He who died for us began the faithful course of His life by being circumcised for us. We show we are His when, like Him, we obey the Father’s will. The traditional Anglican collect for this feast describes this, following Moses and then Saint Paul, as a spiritual circumcision, one intended for all Christians. “Grant us,” it prayed, “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.”
To obey God’s blessed will is to seek first the good of our neighbor, to show love even to the difficult, to fast and pray and give freely, so we might find freedom from the desires that hold us captive and corrupt our hearts. To have the “true circumcision of the Spirit” is to relinquish control, to learn to wait patiently, to extend costly mercy.
This week I read a sermon for this feast written by the great Victorian preacher Henry Liddon, chancellor of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. If any in his congregation were still looking for a New Year’s resolution, Liddon noted that the feast suggested one quite naturally: we could “resolve to do every day something which we naturally dislike, as an act of love and worship to our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That may be a bit more strenuous than lightening up on the chocolate or going to the gym four times a week, or whatever else you were already considering for 2017. But then suffering should be the natural way for we who share the life of Him who shed His blood for us. To do something disliked every day for the love of Jesus alone: well, that might just be an idea shocking enough in this culture to get all the girls kicked out of Sunday School class.
 Gal. 6:15.
 BCP (1928), 105.
 BCP (1928), 55.
 BCP (1979), 149.
 Brown, DeNeen L. “A Covenant with God Fulfilled after Blizzard Brings DC to a Standstill.” The Washington Post. 24 Jan. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-covenant-with-god-fulfilled-after-a-blizzard-brings-dc-to-a-standstill/2016/01/24/e2b2d2da-c2d6-11e5-a4aa-f25866ba0dc6_story.html?utm_term=.eb09fb5f4693
 Gen. 17:10, 13.
 Lev. 12:3.
 Dt. 10:16.
 Heb. 10:9, c.f. Ps. 40:8.
 BCP (1928), 105.
 “The Circumcision of Christ” (1898), Lectionary Central. http://www.lectionarycentral.com/christmas2/LiddonGospel.html
The Rev. Mark Michael is editor of The Living Word.