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.