On the eighth day after his birth, before receiving the “name above all names” (Phil. 2:9), Jesus was circumcised.
The temptation is to spiritualize this first shedding of blood by the Word made flesh. Certainly, circumcision has a spiritual meaning, as we hear in the brilliant Collect for this day in the Church of England:
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.
Jesus was circumcised so that our hearts may be circumcised from the wages of sin and death, so that we may be obedient to the law of eucharistic love inaugurated in the birth of our Lord in the food trough at Bethlehem.
But the spiritual meaning cannot be separated from the reality that our Lord, but eight days old, bled. As he was given his name — the name that makes our hearts sing — he received a wound.
Is this not the dazzling truth of Christmas, the voluntary woundedness of the God who dwells among us?
From the very beginning of creation, we meet a God who works through wounds. Out of loving vulnerability—that is out of the freedom of self-gift—God creates the world as an act of love. He bestows to Adam the freedom to name the creatures of the earth, emptying himself out of what could be understood as a divine prerogative. And yet, God is the Creator who has given to his creatures the capacity to speak a name. Still seeing the loneliness of Adam who remains in solitude, God makes Eve out of a wound from Adam’s side. And when God is rejected by the creatures made in his image and likeness, made with the freedom to name the world, he promises Adam and Eve that he will heal their wounds.
Indeed, the story of Israel is the God who mercifully enters the woundedness of this people, setting up a tent of presence among them. God sees the blood shed in Egypt, and God calls them to a new freedom, to be children of God. God gives the Law to heal their swollen hearts. God sends the prophets, who are violently expelled, ignored because they speak the healing medicine of the Word of God. And when Israel is sent into exile after the slaughter of so many, their very identity wounded by their Babylonian captives, God still dwells with them.
And now, eight days after we listened to the joyful songs of the angels, after we bent the knee before the crèche, we meet God in a wound. In the circumcision of our Lord, the woundedness of our God is revealed in the flesh. Jesus’s foreskin is cut off by a knife. He bleeds and oozes. And only then is he given his name.
Jesus. The Lord saves. The Lord has come to save His people, all the people, by becoming wounded just like us. The circumcision is but the first of many wounds. He will be wounded by the death of his father Joseph. He will be wounded by those he has come to save, rejected by Israel and Rome alike. He will be wounded on the cross, spurned by the disciples, rebuffed by almost all. And from his side, upon that cross, he will receive the last and final wound — blood and water pouring forth from his side.
Dear friends, the Church herself is born from the side of the wound of Christ. Baptism and Eucharist, blood and water, the very vitality of life. We are given the name Christian not as an occasion of prestige. Rather, we are given this name because we must become like our Lord. We must become like him, the one who dwells with those who walk through this valley of tears, who loves unto the end even when it is risky. Especially when there is a chance to be wounded.
After all, this is what it means for the Word to become flesh. Flesh is not an abstraction. Jesus was truly born, lived a flesh and blood life, shed tears at the death of Lazarus, and comforted his mother who watched her beloved son, the beloved Son of the Father, die upon the cross.
If we are to be given the name Christian, baptized into the death and resurrection — that is the fleshiness of our Lord — we must let ourselves be counted among those who are wounded. The wounded Church relies entirely upon the love of Christ. We remain open to the flesh and blood suffering of the world. This is not a matter of an unnecessary woundedness. It the woundedness of a lover or a parent, who sacrifices out of excess, not out of a spiritual sickness whereby we refuse any healing.
A wounded Church, proclaiming nothing but the gospel of our saving Lord.
A wounded Church, keeping vigil with those who die alone in hospitals during pandemics.
A wounded Church that announces the gift of every life, especially those on the margins: the unborn, the prisoner on death row, the migrant, and the young Black man suffering from the sins of racism.
A wounded Church that receives her identity not from strategic plans or development campaigns but from the eucharistic sacrifice of our Lord, who feeds us with the finest wheat.
Before he is named, our Lord is circumcised. We too must receive this circumcision, be mortified from all carnal lusts, from all desires to obtain security, domination, and power.
We must make let our will be that of the triune God, who is love.
We must let ourselves be wounded by this gift of love.
Dr. Timothy P. O’Malley is the academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life. He is also a professor in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame.