January 1 the Circumcision of Christ

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!

A few years ago one of my employers and I were having a conversation.  It was New Year’s eve day and he asked me what I was going to be doing that night and the next day.  I told him I would be in Church.  He seemed surprised.  “I didn’t know that Jan. 1 was a holiday for your Tradition.”  I just smiled and said, “Yes, you know, it is eight days after Christmas, and Jesus’ family were all good Jews.”  My boss brightened up.  He was an observant Jew in the conservative tradition.  “You mean you celebrate Jesus’ bris?”  “Yes,” I told him, “we do.” He thought that was pretty good.  He liked that.  Over the years we would find many parallels between Orthodoxy and the traditional Jewish customs.  Where he saw a parallel, I saw a fulfillment and transcendence by the Church. But I want to get back to what he said to me, “You mean you celebrate Jesus’ bris?”

          Bris is the word used in Judaism for the rite of circumcision which occurs on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life.  It is the time when the circumcision is performed but also the time when the name is officially bestowed upon the child.  We Orthodox also name our children on the eighth day of their lives.  This is significant, concerning the bris.  First it is important to note that the child is named on that day, next that the Jewish child was circumcised, then, and finally that it was the eighth day. In all of these we can find something important theologically as it relates to Christ.

          The word bris comes from the Hebrew word and means covenant.  The Vespers reading for the present feast is taken from Genesis.  In the passage Abraham is told to begin the rite of circumcision in his household.

The Lord says:

As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. 5 Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. 6 And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

Here we see that when God makes the covenant with Abram, He changes Abram’s name to Abraham.  Abram means something like exalted father, but Abraham means the father of a multitude.  Something in the nature of Abraham, who had no children even until his old age, is changed by this covenant and this name change.  As we contemplated in the reading for the Sunday before the Nativity, the name that Jesus will be given tells us something about Him.  Jesus means, Savior, or God Saves.  On the eighth day after His birth, our Lord is given this Name which tells us about the activity of the incarnate Lord for us.  It bears repeating as well that the Person of the Trinity Who spoke to Abraham, Who gave him the name Abraham and instituted circumcision among the Israelites was the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos or Word of God who would Himself be the One Who would take on the name of Jesus.  So we see that the naming of the child is important but why is it so important that it was done at the time of the circumcision?  The reading from Genesis continues and sheds more light on this

And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

          The Circumcision, the bris, is the sign of the covenant between Abraham and God.  It is a signifier of who is or is not of the people of God, the people of Israel.  We are shown that a child receives its name, becomes a member of the Tribe, so to speak, on the day that he also is brought into the covenant with God.  The boy himself becomes a sign of the covenant and now has something that sets him apart, even physically, from the gentile peoples around him.  His external disposition reflects an internal one.  We are told by various Church Fathers that this was a means of keeping the Israelites pure and perpetually aware of their separation from the other nations.  It was a means of making them ready to receive the Messiah, the Christ.

          Christ Himself, since His family were observant Jews, allowed Himself to undergo this painful procedure.  It was part of His self-emptying, his kenosis, and was the first blood that He shed for humanity.  It was necessary for Him to undergo the bris in order to fulfill the Law, to show to those around Him that He was indeed an Israelite and a Jew.  Had He not been circumcised, no one of the Jews would have followed Him.  He would have been, as the passage in Genesis states, cut off from Irsael as a covenant breaker.  It was necessary for Him to fulfill, to complete the Law, and then transcend it and transform it; not to abolish it.   Just as Christ had no need to be baptized and cleansed of sin, He did not actually need to be circumcised.  He did these things, though, as I said, to fulfill and complete the Law.

          This brings us to our third point, the fact that it is on the eighth day that a child is named and circumcised.  The terminology of the eighth day is theologically weighty for the Orthodox Christian.  We recognize that Scriptures say that God created the world in six days and on the seventh day, the Sabbath, He rested.  The eighth day is, for us, the day of Resurrection when creation is made new.  We say that Christ rose on the eighth day, so to speak.  When Christ rose from the dead the whole of creation was changed and renewed.  St. Cyril of Alexandria describes this typology:  “for as far as regards the nature of the thing, of that, I mean, which is done in the flesh, it is absolutely nothing, but it is pregnant with the graceful type of a mystery, or rather contains the hidden manifestation of the truth. For on the eighth  day Christ arose from the dead, and gave us the spiritual circumcision.”

          What we see in the bris, then, is a foreshadowing of our own redemption.  The rite of circumcision was a type of an even greater mystery; the Mystery of Baptism and of the Church.  We in the Church do not have a rite of Circumcision, but we do name our children, males and females, on the eighth day in anticipation of their baptism to come.   When we baptize a child (or an adult for that matter), we are also spiritually circumcising him.  The seal and sign of the covenant between man and God is no longer the physical sign of the circumcision, but is the spiritual sign of baptism and the seal of chrismation.  St Cyril wrote, “for as in old time he that was circumcised, was reckoned among the people of God by that seal, so also he that is baptized, having formed in himself Christ the seal, is enrolled into God's adopted family.”  Today’s Epistle reading states this idea explicitly:

For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. 10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: 11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

I love this line from above, “And ye are complete in Him…”  There is nothing that we need other than Christ.  With Christ we have no need of circumcision or any of the works of the Law, for they have been completed in Christ and when we are united to Christ we too have fulfilled the Law.

There is a line in the above passage from the Epistle that is interesting, though.  It says, “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ…”  There is something that we must do as well to participate in the circumcision of Christ and to take on the ‘circumcision made without hands.”  That is there is an ascetic element for us to take on.  St Cyril puts it thus concerning baptism and the life in Christ,

…it is the symbol of the faithful when established in grace, who 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…

We have a task ahead of us then in this new year.  And perhaps that this feast of the circumcision comes at the time of our civil new year is a sign for us as well.  Let us not just make a New Year’s resolution to do better in our life, to unite ourselves to Christ more and more.  Let us rather strive to do so.  Let us make this New Year’s day our own new eighth day and renew our covenant with the Lord.  Let us circumcise from our hearts the passions that hold us back from fully loving the Lord and truly realizing the words of St. Paul, “and ye are complete in Him.”  Let us let Christ complete us as He desires.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.  Glory to Jesus Christ!  Glory Forever!





2009 Fr. Philip Kontos