Two weeks ago, the Sunday before Christmas, the gospel reading recounted the genealogy of Christ and the numerous names of His ancestors. Today, January 1st is the Feast of Jesus’ name because, according to the ancient Jewish tradition, on the eighth day of birth, each male child would receive his name and would be circumcised. This tradition started when God appeared to Abram in Genesis 17:1-14 (one of three Old Testament passages read at the Vespers of this feast) and proposed a covenant that He would be Abram’s God and would multiply Abram and his descendants if Abram and they would be God’s people. The sign of this covenant would be Abram (which means ‘high father’) receiving a new name, “Abraham” (which means ‘father of a multitude’) and he would receive circumcision, the cutting away of the foreskin which is a physically indelible mark on a very personal and private part of the male body. Many throughout history have misunderstood circumcision as a sign of membership in an ethnic race. This of course is a mistake, for from the beginning it had a religious, moral and universal character.
Abraham’s new relationship with the one true God expresses the religious nature of the covenant. The moral character is expressed in God’s command to walk before Him and to be blameless (v.1). The universal aspect is expressed in God’s command that Abraham circumcise every male of his household, whether a blood relative, a slave or a foreigner (v.12). The deeper meaning of the moral aspect of circumcision (the Abrahamic Covenant) is reinforced later, after the Law is given to Moses (the Mosaic Covenant). In Deuteronomy 30:6, we read: 6And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul that you may live. The prophet Jeremiah (4:4) also said, 4Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, And take away the foreskins of your hearts, You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Lest My fury come forth like fire, And burn so that no one can quench it, Because of the evil of your doings.” These passages tell us that even some of the ancient Jews were already practicing circumcision as an empty ritual, devoid of its essential moral character.
Jesus Christ Himself experienced circumcision and this is the other part of today’s Feast besides His naming. We hear in the first part of the Gospel reading: 21After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the Child; and He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb (Luke 20:21). However, after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension, the practice of circumcision is done away with and is replaced by baptism and chrismation as the sign and the seal of God’s new covenant. Just like the ancient people became a part of the synagogue and temple through circumcision, so now people become members of the Body of Christ through baptism and chrismation. The Council of the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15) confirmed the doing away with circumcision and made it official but the debate did not necessarily end there. Much of the Apostle Paul’s letters deal with the Judaizers who still required circumcision in the Christian Church.
In today’s Epistle reading (Colossians 2:8-12), St. Paul explains this new dynamic. 11In Him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12when you were buried with Him in baptism, you were also raised with Him through faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead (vv.11-12). Elsewhere, in arguing against the Judaizers in Rome (chap.2), St. Paul says, 28For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God (vv.28-29). To the Corinthians, St. Paul says the same: 19Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters (1Cor.7:19). To the Galatians, 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love (Gal.5:6), and 15For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation (Gal.6:15).
In the OT rite of circumcision only a small piece of flesh is removed; in the circumcision of Christ, our baptism, we die to our whole flesh and live to God (OSB, p466). The practice of baptism is even more universal than circumcision because women are now included. Lev Gillet, the author of the book, “The Year of the Grace of the Lord” expresses succinctly the essence of our covenant with God.
Even if we do not have to submit to physical circumcision, we still must submit to a true spiritual circumcision. Our covenant with God, the new covenant in Jesus Christ, must bring about in us the complete submission of our flesh and of its desires to God, the complete consecration and sanctification of our body and of its natural functions…It is not only our flesh, but our heart, before all else, that needs spiritual circumcision. Circumcision of the heart must reach all our thoughts, desires and feelings—excising everything that is in conflict with the search for God. (YGL, pp.75-76)
Fr. Paul Tarazi says that baptism becomes our circumcision in Christ (Col.2:11) where we cut away our attachment to fleshly desires and then “put-on” or “clothe” ourselves with Christ (Gal.3:27). [see Chrysostom Bible: Colossians & Philemon, pp.62-70].
The temptation is the same for us present-day Greek Orthodox. We can think, like some ancient Jews thought about circumcision, that our ethnicity, our icons or even the crosses we wear are a sign of our automatic citizenship in heaven. Yet, no outward physical sign of our baptism in Christ exists, nor of our chrismation in the Holy Spirit. The only outward sign would be our edifying speech and our loving deeds and even if we have them, we would still need to circumcise the thoughts and desires of our heart.
In conclusion, one of the hymns of today’s feast says, “The eighth day, which bears the image of the age to come” (Canon – Ode 1). Let us remember to practice the ritual of naming each of our children on the eighth day of their birth, giving them a name that means something special to us and signifies in some way our relationship to God. Let us help them and each other live the true meaning of our baptism. Let us be ready to partake every Sunday, the Lord’s day, the eighth day of the age to come, to partake of the Eucharist which is the supreme sign of the new covenant in Christ. By regularly and frequently receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood, may we become one body of believers and followers, confessing Christ as our God and becoming over and over, 9But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; (1 Peter 2:9).