Celebrating the circumcision of Christ

The Circumcision of Christ

The Circumcision of Christ, Preobrazhenski Monastery, Bulgaria (Wikimedia Commons).

It may sound like a curious thing to celebrate, but the circumcision of Christ is commemorated by Orthodox, Catholics, and Anglicans alike on New Year’s Day. Special scripture readings, hymns, and prayers mark the observance. There are even stained-glass windows and icons depicting Joseph and Mary handing the little Jesus to the priest for the ominous moment.

The story is well known. In the second chapter of his Gospel, Luke tells us that Christ was circumcised on his eighth day in accordance with the Law and given the name Jesus. Circumcision was a sign of total obedience and commitment to God, a sign given to Abraham by God himself.

The Church recognizes the day for several reasons, seeing in the event cherished truths about our Lord Christ. For one, he submitted to the will of the Father in all things, even this. For another, he humbled himself and identified with his people in all things, even this.

An Orthodox hymn for the day says, “The Master of all endureth humiliation, and is circumcised for the iniquities of mankind; for he his good, and granteth salvation to the world.” Another: “[H]aving fulfilled the law thou didst accept willingly circumcision in the flesh, that thou mightest annul the shadowy signs and remove the veil of our passions.”

That last line points to another cherished truth: Christ’s ministry not only fulfilled the law (it “annul[ed] the shadowy signs”), it also made our holiness and obedience a real possibility (it “remove[ed] the veil of our passions”). The Anglican collect for the day gets at the same point:

Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us 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; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Christ came to fulfill the Law and save us through his perfect obedience. His obedience is an example to us. And with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit received at baptism, the sign of the New Covenant, we are empowered to follow it.

The circumcision of Christ points us toward a life in which we’ve put away carnal lusts, in which the veil of our passions is behind us. It is hard to fathom a more important observance as we face a New Year.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

    Beautiful post, Joel. It is interesting to consider St. Paul’s exposition of circumcision in Romans 2, particularly as it relates to circumcision of the heart.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Excellent point. Thanks!

  • Sarah

    Joel- So many American Christians are confused by circumcision. They seem to treat it like “extra credit” points. They want to use the old covenant as a vague distraction for their secular desire to circumcise. While everything you wrote is true, I’m afraid you did not state this clearly enough: “Circumcision has no value to Christians” “No blood shed from a baby penis can do more than Christ’s blood has already done.” “If you put your faith in acts, you prove that your faith in Jesus is incomplete.” Last fall a frail baby with a heart defect was circumcised by his Christian parents. He bled for seven hours from his penis. The next morning he died. What could have been done to truly lift the yoke of circumcision from his parent’s necks? Christians must be very clear about the fact that the new covenant REPLACES the old.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      That is a truly tragic story. Circumcision, as Paul says, serves no purpose in the New Covenant, but it clearly mattered in the Old and therefore to Christ and his incarnation as a Jewish male under that covenant. The Church’s focus is on this aspect and what it means for believers — not advocating for the continuance of the practice.

  • http://www.confessionsofalegalist.com Jeremy Statton

    During Jesus trial it was said that no fault could be brought against him. Thanks for the reminder about Jesus submission to even the Jewish law.

  • Greybeard

    What stupidity is this?

    “The Church recognizes the day for several reasons, seeing in the event cherished truths about our Lord Christ. For one, he submitted to the will of the Father in all things, even this. For another, he humbled himself and identified with his people in all things, even this.”

    He did not submit or humble himself. The poor little mite had no say in the matter whatsoever. He was only eight days old!

    Why are the religions of the world all so completely obsessed with carving bits off the genitals of defenceless babies?

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Christians say that he submitted himself because of the mystery of the Incarnation. Christ was both God and man, not merely a “poor little mite.”

      I’ll have to let someone else address the concern that “religions of the world are obsessed with carving bits off the genitals of defenseless babies,” but, as I said in the piece itself, Paul taught (and the Christian church after him) that circumcision is unnecessary for salvation; he said it was irrelevant. Sounds like quite the opposite of obsession.

  • kevin kirkpatrick

    Great post. We tend to diminish the humanity of Christ, and thus take away the power from his resurrection. If Christ was anything less than fully man, than mankind cannot really be redeemed. His circumsicion was simply an act of faith carried about by his faithful Jewish parents that 100% affirmed his status as a man who submitted to the laws that were given by God. The same goes for his baptism under John much later. He fulfilled the Jewish law, he did not toss it aside. This has NOTHING to do with arguments about the validity of circumcision today.


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