Joy of All Who Sorrow

32nd Sunday After Pentecost / The Circumcision of the Lord / St Basil the Great

Gospel [Mark 1:1-8 (§1); Luke 2:20-21,40-52 (§6)]

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Brothers and Sisters: Happy Feast! Spraznecom! Happy New Old Year!

No sooner have we had the Feast and marvelled and carolled our way through the Greeting of our Newborn Infant-Christ, the Incarnate Pre-Eternal God, than with the Apodosis yesterday we reach the end of the Feast and await the next Great Feast of this busy winter period. Today we are commemorating the Sunday before the Theophany of Christ, His Baptism by the hands of the holy Forerunner, John the Baptist. Time keeps moving, and the wheels of our Church Calendar are moving round and continuing to turn our gaze from the depths of the Cave in Bethlehem to the banks of the River Jordan. However, before that Great Feast of Theophany which we will celebrate together in just a few days time, we also today celebrate another important Great Feast of our Lord which can be easily overlooked in this busy festal period: for today is the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. It is also the Feast of our holy Father Basil the Great, whose liturgy we served on the Feast of Nativity. But what exactly has today’s celebration of the Circumcision of Christ got to do with our other reading about the baptism of John, preparing the way for the Baptism of God Himself in the Flesh?

And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

This one verse is all the content that our Gospel from Luke provides for the current feast, yet in this verse we can discern that today marks two important events – firstly the naming of Christ, which according to Tradition was made on the Eighth day as well as Christ’s circumcision as a Jewish male child under the Law. Let us take each one of these two signal events separately, firstly the naming of Christ.

As we heard in the Nativity readings of the Feast last week, it was the Archangel Gabriel who gave the our Lord the Name which is above every name, ‘Jesus’. What does this name mean? According to the Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, the name Iēsous comes from Hebrew/Aramaic and means “healer or physician, and saviour.”. Indeed, in St Matthew’s account of the visitation of the Archangel we hear Gabriel explaining the choice of the Name Jesus, ‘for He shall save His people from their sins’. How apt it is, therefore, that the Saviour of the world is given a Name which means healer and Saviour. Each time we say this Sacred Name – above all Names – let us try to be more conscious and aware of its profound meaning. Let not our familiarity and repetition of this name make us dull to the full import and depth of meaning within. As we have reflected on many times before, let us also be more aware of the significance of our being given a name within the Church community by which we are individually, and personally known and commemorated.    

There are so many other examples within the Scriptures as well as within Church Tradition of the Name that a person is given, is not just an arbitrary signifier, but itself contains a rich and mysterious revelation of the character of the person who possesses this. To give just a few of many examples, Abraham, who received the command to circumcise, was given an expanded name by the Lord: Abraham – meaning the father of the nations. The disciple Simon, whose name was changed to Peter by the Lord, also originally possessed a very significant name – “Obedience” which He demonstrated when he left his nets and followed the Lord when He was called beside the Sea of Galilee. We can also recall here the name of St Basil the Great, which comes from the Greek for “royal” and “kingly” and reflect how appropriate this is for a saint who taught us to follow the way of the virtues which he himself described as the “Royal Way”, a way of life which we see royally reflected in his own godly life.

In the same way that our Lord, and all the people of Israel were named on the Eighth day, so also to this very day, all Orthodox Christians are named by the priest on the Eighth day after a child is born, unless there is some reason why this should be brought forward due to the health or frailty of the child. There is a tradition, particularly in Russia that a child should bear the name of a saint who was commemorated on the day of the child’s birth. Sometimes, it might appear to us that the name we have been given by our parents, is somewhat arbitrary or random. Yet, reflecting on the examples of our Lord’s own name, of Abraham’s name, of Simon’s name and of St Basil’s name, we should rather suspect that there may be some much deeper, mystery at work in this name which we bear, for there are truly no coincidences in this world. Even if we don’t immediately understand or realise the significance, maybe it will only be much later in our lives, when the meaning of our names will be revealed. From our Lord’s own example we must see our Name as part of a richer, deeply theological pattern, even if we can’t see the design.

The second event that is revealed in that short verse from St Luke’s Gospel is of course the fact that our Lord was circumcised. In the first reading from the Vespers for the Feast we heard from the Book of Genesis where God speaks to Abram, and after naming him, Abraham then says –

And this is the covenant which thou shalt fully keep between Me and you, and between thy seed after thee for their generations: every male of you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between me and you, and between thy seed after thee for their generations. And the child of eight days old shall be circumcised by you, every male throughout your generations.

From that moment onwards, the rite of circumcision was the visible sign by which the People of Israel, the descendants of Abraham were intimately and directly separated and distinguished from the other races and nations of the earth. Obeying this commandment was also a physical and tangiable means through which the recipient beared in his body the mark of his covenentual relationship with God. As the male child born, without human seed, of Mary, whose geneaology we heard reflected in the genealogy of Joseph from the start of St Matthew’s Gospel on the Sunday before Christmas, it was to be expected that the child would be brought into the Temple on the Eighth day to receive circumcision. And yet, it is also important that we don’t stop at the surface and see in today’s feast just a culturally derived rite or ritual. As St Cyril of Alexandria says in his homily on this passage, we need to look at this feast again and see what is going on before our very eyes –

Today … we have seen Him Who as God is the Legislator, subject to His own decrees’

All of us are all to used to politicians, those invested with the responsibility to make the laws of the land, themselves not obeying those same laws. We can all think of countless examples of Prime Ministers and Presidents, members of Parliament, who create laws in many cases which they have absolutely no intention of being subject to themselves, and rather again and again find clever means of circumventing them or concealing the extent of their own corruption. How different it is, though when our Merciful God becomes Incarnate. Look and marvel, how the Author of the Jewish Law condescends to be Himself subject to that same Law, and receive the mark of circumcision. Just as we were amazed by the willingness of the God and Creator of All to become born as a tiny, vulnerable baby in that Cave in Bethlehem, so too, should we marvel at the example of our Lord’s own humble obedience to the Law. In this we can see that our Lord is not One like those worldly politicians who just distantly issues decrees and edicts, rather He comes down from His Heavenly Throne and meekly, as St Cyril beautifully puts it, ‘yielded … His neck to the law in company with us … for it became Him to fulfil all righteousness’. It was to humbly fulfil the prophesies concerning the coming of the Messiah, that Christ consented to visibly join Himself to the descendants of Abraham in being circumcised in His Flesh. He also did this, in order that the Faithful of the House of Israel would recognize him as a true Jew of the line of David, and would not find offence in him.

Yet, at the same time, as clearly articulated in several of the epistles of the Apostle Paul, with the coming of Christ and His circumcision, we also behold the end of circumcision as the sign of the Covenant between God and His chosen people. As St Euthymius Zigabenus says, ‘the Jewish ritual of circumcision was a type that signified and prefigured the Baptism of Christians … and the type necessarily ceased at the coming of the prototype’. Indeed, today – thankfully – it is no longer a requirement for male Orthodox Christians to be literally circumcised. As St Paul says in the Epistle to the Galatians, ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature’. Thus, at His Ascension into Heaven, our Lord does not give a command to go and circumcise, but rather as a manifestation of the New Covenant which has come through His own circumcised Body he rather proclaims – ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’. As we heard in today’s Epistle from St Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, Christians through their baptism –

are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 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.

In St Paul’s theology, the physical and literal circumcision of the Old Testament is replaced with the spiritual circumcision of Baptism where the Old Man within us is cut out and cut off, and we are rather signed and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

My dear Father, brothers and sisters: so we see that today’s Feast of the Circumcision of Christ also draws us towards that next Great Feast which we now eagerly await, the Feast of the Theophany, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today’s Feast of the Circumcision of Christ supremely draws our attention to the indisputable fact that God has come in the Flesh, and united himself to a real, male, human body. As we begin this new year, let us think of the covenant that we have made with our Saviour through our own spiritual circumcision, our own Baptism and Reception into the Church. In this coming new year, let each of us think how we can draw closer to Christ and make good the promises we have made that we might mystically realise the significance of our own Name and honour the saint whose name we bear.

We worship thy Birth O Christ, We worship thy Birth O Christ, show us also thy holy Theophany!