The Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord
Every male of you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. A child who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised … and my covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant (Genesis, 17:10-13).
When our forefather in faith Abraham was ninety-nine years of age, the eternal Son and Word of God came to him and made covenant with him. He commanded that, as the defining “sign” of that covenant, Abraham and his seed be circumcised. Throughout succeeding centuries, Israel dutifully kept this Law and even took it as a cause for boasting (Galatians 6:14).1
It was to fulfill this divine commandment that our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ was circumcised on the eighth day after His birth according to the flesh from His pure and ever-virgin Mother Mary. This event receives but passing notice in the Gospel:
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:21).
Yet, laden with great significance, Christ’s circumcision proved to be both the fulfillment of God’s commandment in the Law and a prophetic sign of future events.
The Savior’s circumcision was the occasion of the first shedding of His precious blood. The Cross overshadowed the Lord Jesus even while He lay in a crib by swaddling bands bound. The knife which cut the Lord’s flesh on that day foreshadowed the centurion’s spear which would pierce His side, releasing the saving torrent, the blood and water (John 19:34). That torrent drowned the Law’s type and shadow and gave birth to the font. Circumcision prefigured the saving stream of holy baptism through which we Christians enter the new and eternal covenant of salvation as St. Paul proclaimed:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12)
In circumcision a blade wielded by the hand of man cut away flesh; in baptism the blade of the Holy Spirit cuts away sin. The Spirit-blade cuts deep, rooting out the sin of our forefather. In the blood of Christ’s Passion sin is drowned together with death’s might and Hades (Hosea 13:14; I Corinthians 15:55). Through the water from His side a fertile seed of immortal life and incorruptibility is firmly planted in the soul and flesh of each one who issues from the font. The metal blade of circumcision marked the flesh of Jewish males; the Spirit-blade of baptism marks the soul and body of each and every Christian with the “Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Before this new and mighty “sign,” the cherubim with fiery sword who guard lost Paradise, which of old was in Eden (Genesis 3:25), give way that the children of the new Covenant may, like the Good Thief (Luke 23:43), pass within to rest until the final consummation of God’s eternal plan.
Of old God in the Law commanded Israel: “circumcise your hardheartedness, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16).
Now we who have undergone the very real surgery of baptism, must circumcise our hearts as well. St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria (+444), says that we, the faithful, who have been established in grace through holy baptism, must cut away and mortify the tumultuous risings of carnal pleasures and passions by the sharp surgery of faith and by ascetic labors; not cutting the body, but purifying the heart, and being circumcised in the Spirit, and not in the letter [according to the letter of Mosaic Law]; whose praise, as the divine Paul testifies (Romans 2:29), needs not the sentence of any human tribunal, but depends upon the decree from above.”2
Thus we learn the significance of Christ the Savior’s eighth-day circumcision, that
“Name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9) was given:
- His fulfillment of the Mosaic law;
- the foreshadowing of His saving Passion and of our participation therein through holy baptism;
- the taking up of the cross and (Luke 9:23), the daily circumcision of our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit through ascetic effort.
The all-good God was not ashamed to be circumcised with the circumcision of the flesh, but provided Himself as an example and pattern for all, for their salvation; for the Creator of the Law fulfilled the prescriptions of the Law and the predictions of the Prophets concerning Himself. O Lord, who holdest all things in the palm of Thy hand and was wrapped in swaddling-clothes, glory to Thee (from aposticha of the feast).
The unworthy servant of Christ, the priest Daniel Griffith, Pastor, St. Michael’s Antiochian Orthodox Church, Geneva.
1 Although circumcision was practiced by a number of cultures of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean world, at the beginning of the Christian era it was closely identified with the Jewish people. In the New Testament, the word “the Circumcision” without further qualification meant the Jewish people, as contrasted with “the Uncircumcision,” the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-8; Ephesians 2:11; Colossians 4:11).
2 St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, trans. by R. Payne Smith (Studion Press Inc.: 1983), p. 57.