By Jean McCurdy Meade
The Christmas lesson from Luke ends with the shepherds going back to their fields, glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen, as the angel had made known to them (2:20). But the very next verse is what we celebrate today, and is the completion of the birth of Jesus. “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” (2:21)
In the 1928 prayer book, January 1 was called the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. The collect reads:
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.
In the 1979 prayer book, January 1 is called the Feast of the Holy Name and the collect been completely changed, leaving out any reference to the law of Moses:
Eternal Father, who didst give to thine incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we beseech thee, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, even our Lord Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
It seems odd to change the name of the Feast to “the Holy Name of Jesus” while completely ignoring the circumcision that is recorded in the very same verse of Scripture. After all, circumcision and naming take place together and in that order. Circumcision looks backward to Jesus’ identity as a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, and inheritor of the covenant:
This is my covenant which you shall keep between me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. … [I]t shall be the sign of the covenant between me and you. … [E]very male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations. (Gen. 17:10-12)
And then in the law of Moses, “When a woman gives birth to a male child, then she shall be unclean for seven days. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev. 12:2-3).
His circumcision testifies that Jesus, as St. Paul put it, was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4).
Otherwise, how could he have said that he came not to abolish the law or the prophets (Matt. 5:17-18)?
After the infant is circumcised, he is formally given his name, just as we still do in the baptism service for a child. Remember that the Name Jesus was given to each parent separately by an angelic visitation: First to Mary before she agreed to bear the child fathered by the Holy Spirit.
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. (Luke 1:30-31)
And next to her betrothed, Joseph, when he discovers that she is pregnant, but not by him, and considers in his mind what he should do.
But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20-21)
Joseph and Mary are a family throughout the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. Mary is not an unwed mother; Joseph has taken her as his wife as the angel told him to do, but “knows her not” until she has borne the promised child. She is called his “betrothed” in Luke to emphasize that the marriage has not been consummated, although they are traveling as husband and wife to Bethlehem. And here, on the eighth day after his birth, they together present him for circumcision and naming, according to the law of Moses.
His circumcision was the first shedding of Jesus’ blood in solidarity with his fellow human beings, and in anticipation of the five wounds on the cross as he dies.
It will presage his words to John the Baptist, when he said should be baptized by Jesus, and Jesus insisted on his solidarity with the rest of the people who were sinners needing repentance (Matt. 3:15). “He became what we are in order that we might become what he is,” as Irenaeus put it.
Jesus’s command to baptize all the world in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit becomes the substitute for circumcision as a sign of the new covenant in the expanding Church as it reaches out to the Gentiles. It was decided at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 that Gentile converts did not have to conform to the Jewish law. (Though Paul, one of the chief advocates for this position, shows that the law can be followed, so long as it’s not treated as a requirement for inclusion.)
After the resurrection the very first confession of faith of the Church involves the name of Jesus. Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God” when Jesus appears and offers to show him the wounds of his crucifixion. As Peter says on Pentecost, “This Jesus whom you crucified God has made both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). The proclamation that Jesus is Lord is tantamount to saying that the man named Jesus is somehow one with the one God who made the heavens and the earth and gave the Law and the Prophets to Israel.
We should remember that Jews, including Jesus, never used a name for God; epithets, yes, but not the name, as if there were more than one god and each one had to be distinguished from the others. Instead they say “Adonai,” translated as “the LORD,” when the letters of the tetragrammaton (yhwh) appear.
Jesus called God his Father and taught us to call God Father as well. The only name we Christians know for the divine is Jesus, the name given to each of his parents by an angel, and that becomes the name above all names. The significance of that name is the theme of St. Paul’s hymn to Christ in Philippians:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-10)
It seems to me that marking the circumcision of our Lord on this day, along with his naming, in no way diminishes the significance of his name for all time. But it reminds us that Jesus, a Jewish, human child, was born into a Jewish, human family as the fulfillment of covenant with Abraham and Moses that prepared the way for his Incarnation, and that the only name given for our salvation is Jesus, the Christ and the Lord.