A meditation from Peter Toon
Few Episcopalian churchgoers today are familiar with the Feast of our Lord on January 1st as “The Feast of the Circumcision” because it is now called “The Feast of the Holy Name.” However, whilst there is tremendous symbolic meaning in the Name of Jesus (Joshua, “the Lord our salvation”) on which we all ought to meditate, there is also deep symbolic meaning in the fact that the infant, who was called Jesus was also circumcised because, put simply, he was a Jewish boy, not a girl, and born within the Mosaic covenant of grace. On this also we ought to meditate!
It is rather odd, we may think, that in a time and culture where there is much explicit “sex”, that the Church should cease to refer directly and publicly to the day when Jesus was circumcised! At least in liberal progressive contexts, this cessation is empowered by the idea that Jesus is androgynous and thus specific talk of circumcision is not in order—but more of this below.
From the middle of the sixth century until the 1960s the Feast was known in the West as “The Feast of the Circumcision.” Only in the last forty years has its name has been changed by both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Churches either to emphasize the Name of the Son of God or the role of his blessed Mother. However, there are excellent reasons for retaining the traditional Name and meaning of the Feast.
Circumcision was the entrance into the Covenant of the Law, the Mosaic Covenant, and the person receiving it involved himself in every other obligation of the Law of Moses – as St Paul wrote, “every man who is circumcised is a debtor to keep the whole Law (Gal 5:3) In the institution of circumcision God told Abraham, “He that is eight days old shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:12). For the Jew nothing was perfect until seven days had passed from the moment of its production and the eighth day had arrived – because the creation of the world with its ensuing rest took 7 days (Genesis 1)!
The Law was obeyed with respect to Jesus. “When eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus (Luke 2:21).
For Christians there is a profound reason why the Feast of the Circumcision should be eight days after the Feast of Christmas. St Paul wrote in Galatians 4:4: “God sent forth his Son made of a woman” [Christmas] and then he added, “made under the Law” [here is the Circumcision, the act by which Jesus first became involved in legal obligation as a Jew, the Son of David]. His whole life henceforth was in obedience both to the Law of Moses and to the higher will of his Father in heaven. So it is not a surprise to find that in the pleadings of the Litany, the Birth and the Circumcision are united as the Lord Jesus is addressed: “By thy holy Nativity and Circumcision… Good Lord, deliver us.”
And on the Feast of the Circumcision, as we read or hear the opening of the traditional Anglican Collect: “Almighty God [the Father], who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man….,” we recall and state before God not only the fact of the circumcision of Jesus but also that his circumcision, with its commitment to the obeying of the whole law of God, was done also for man, for the human race, and thus for us. It was done for man, male and female, because Jesus is “The Lord our salvation” and “Immanuel, God with us.” He is the Incarnate Son of the Father, who has taken to himself from his Blessed Mother Mary our human nature in its male form so as to be our Savior from within human nature.
It was common and good in the past—though neglected today— to speak of Jesus, in his vocation as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the whole world, as being involved in two necessary aspects of obedience to God his Father through the Law. One is active obedience, his daily commitment to obey God through the law in thought, word and action; and this he did willingly and wholly to the moment that he expired on the Cross. The other is passive obedience (from pascho, to suffer), his passion, his suffering as the innocent for the guilty, as bearing the pain and punishment as the substitute and representative on behalf of his people (see Isaiah 52: 13 – 53: 12). Both these important aspects are signified in the act of circumcision; for here the first shedding of his precious blood points to his passive obedience in the shedding of the blood of Atonement at the Cross of Calvary, thirty or so years later at the close of his Messianic ministry.
One further point is worthy of noting and considering with respect to the bloody circumcision of Jesus, son of Mary and Incarnate Son of God the Father. And it is a point that is very relevant in the contemporary, liberal progressive Episcopal (Anglican) Church. What the circumcision makes abundantly clear is that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity assumed not human nature in the abstract, but human nature as male, for he became Man, not an androgynous human person. This seems to be offensive to some of strong feminist commitments. They prefer to speak of the Child of God and suggest this Child was androgynous.
Further, in these egalitarian days, it is asked: how can a male man represent female persons, for male and female are two different and distinct forms of humanity? The biblical answer, which again is offensive to or difficult for some modern people, is found in the doctrine of creation: “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1: 27). In creation there is an order that is from God. In this order man is both male and female, man and woman, husband and wife. However, the male is first in order and the woman is second. They have equal dignity and honor before God; but, one, the woman, by God’s appointment is second in order (not inferior) to the other. This is conveyed in speech by the word man in ancient and modern languages, including Hebrew, having the meaning of “man, woman and children.” And in doctrine it is said that the woman is included in the man, so that Jesus the Man is not only the representative of male men like himself but also of female women like his blessed Mother and all children. Symbolically this is portrayed in Genesis 3 by the creation of the female woman out of man, who is thus “bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh” (3:21-24).
If the eternal Word (Logos) and Son of God had become human either as androgynous or female, it/she could not (by the very design of God in creation!) have become and been the Savior of mankind (males & females). Only the male man is by God’s ordering able to represent both male and female persons and thus the Word of the Father became man, male man. He was circumcised for us all because by that act he committed himself to doing what was good and necessary for the salvation of mankind, Jewish and Gentile men and women!
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, may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP 1662/1928)
In response to his Circumcision (and all that it implies), as the BCP Collect prays, we (male and female members of the new covenant created by the shed blood of Jesus) ask God to circumcise our hearts and all our faculties, to cut away from them all sinfulness and to cause them to be sanctified, so that we may gladly do his will. This is surely an excellent prayer with which to begin the New (secular) Year on January 1, 2007.
December 27, 2006
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)