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The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb. ~Luke 2:21
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. ~The Collect for the Circumcision of Christ, The Book of Common Prayer, 1662.
By thy holy Nativity and Circumcision… Good Lord, deliver us. ~The Litany
Circumcision is an integral part of the Gospel. Though one can hardly be blamed for being ignorant on the matter since it is hardly ever mentioned (even in churches that make a big noise about being “gospel-focused”). But since today is “The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ,” it seems fitting to say a few words about this oft-neglected facet of the redemptive work of Jesus.
Perhaps the main reason that so little is said about the circumcision of Christ is that it is viewed as a taboo topic by a certain kind of over-scrupulous person. But in an age where the majority of people have lost the ability to blush at even the basest forms of obscenity, shock at the mere mention of the male reproductive organ seems less than genuine. Though it may cause some to squirm uncomfortably in their seats, the matter will not be understood without giving a wink and a nod to the fact that one has at least a theoretical knowledge of the strange goings on amongst the Birds and the Bees.
When God entered into covenant with Abraham, He instituted a sign and seal of that compact. This sign was to be cut into the flesh of all the male offspring born in Israel (Gen. 17). God was marking a people for Himself, sealing them with an emblem of promise, and providing a sign that pointed beyond them to a greater prospect.
That sign was made by cutting away the foreskin of the reproductive organ of Hebrew males. That organ symbolized the curse of death, passed down through natural generation, ever since Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the males stood as representative heads of their families in Adam until the Second Adam would come to shoulder that obligation. And “in Adam, all die.” So from the day of his circumcision, every time a man or boy in Israel saw the mark in his flesh he was to think of death, and be reminded of the promise God made whereby He would remove the corruption of Adam and reverse the curse of death.
Circumcision was to take place on the “eighth day,” or the first day of the new week. This symbolized the promise of New Creation that would come to those who were in covenant with God. According to the witness of the gospel evangelists, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth fulfilling both the legal obligations and their typological implications. This is why the Church has historically celebrated the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on the octave (the eight day) of Christmas. But there is a deeper reason that goes beyond its convenient placement on the calendar during the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Holy Scripture joins the sacred events of Christ’s birth and circumcision together, the latter providing the rationale for the former: “God sent forth his son (thus begins His regal work as God’s Son), made under the law (thus begins His legal work as God’s Sacrifice).” Likewise, there is a sense in which these two moments in the life of Jesus undergird each other. In order for God to “provide himself a lamb,” He would need to become very man, able to be “cut.” But in order for His sacrifice to be efficacious, He would need to be very God. Just so, the collect for this day recognizes the theological reasoning behind our Lord’s Nativity and Circumcision, “Almighty God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man…” while the Litany calls us to plead for salvation by virtue of the unbreakable link between to the two, “By thy holy Nativity and Circumcision… Good Lord, deliver us.”
In the act of circumcision, Christ the Lawgiver becomes Lawkeeper; He enters into the covenant by means of blood to avail for those who cannot live up to its terms. The significance of the ceremonial “cutting off” of the flesh would be ultimately realized when Christ would be “cut off” on the cross. The Judge would be judged in our place, though He had kept every jot and tittle of the Law. The curse of the law was broken over the back of Jesus. The blood that He shed at His birth was the sign that prefigured what He would do in His death. Jonathan Edwards notes, “And so to instance in his circumcision, what he suffered in that had the nature of satisfaction, the blood that was shed in his circumcision was propitiatory blood…” The circumcision of Christ was a little Calvary.
Our Lord’s circumcision stands as the first witness of His redeeming work; His flesh was cut away and removed from the Body of Christ so that you and I need not be. No wonder the promised name spoken by the angel crowned that blessed head on this very day—Jehovah had finally come to save His people from their sins.