And after eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised, his name was called JESUS, which was called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Lk 2v21)
Why does the Church celebrate the Circumcision?
At a first glance, the Circumcision of our Lord might appear to be an odd thing to commemorate: it is not a ritual of the Church founded by Christ, it is a not practice of Christians and to the more delicate or peevish minded, it might even seem a little improper.
To answer this question, we must understand that the rite of circumcision was instituted by God as a sign of the covenant He had made with Abraham and the whole Jewish race. In this rite, blood was shed and offered to God and a mark was left as remembrance of this offering. Blood is considered as the symbol and essence of life, and so its offering to God was an offering of one’s life to God. It had the effect of cleansing the male child from original sin (but without opening of the gates of heaven - St. Bede the Venerable [the female child was cleansed from original sin by being offered in the Temple]).
The Church however celebrates this feast for with good reason.
1. Continuity with the Old Testament
Christ came to bring the Mosaic Law to its finality which was the New and Everlasting Covenant – not with just the Jewish race, but with all of mankind. He was born under the Mosaic Law and saw fit to follow its precepts until His public office commenced. He did this to show His obedience to the Law and the continuity between the Old and the New Testament. By celebrating the feast, the continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament is remembered.
2. Ceremony by which Christ receives a name
The occasion of the circumcision was the occasion where a child received His name. And to understand why this is important, we must first ask ourselves: What is a name? It is a sign which stimulates the recall of the concept of the thing named. The more one knows of the thing named, the more the concept is like unto the reality of the thing. By taking a name, Jesus can be born into our minds. This is the first necessary step of the process by which He is born into our hearts, by which He is born into us by grace, by which we are born again as sons of God and by which we begin to live God’s life, sharing in His divinity.
3. Designation as Saviour
But the word 'Jesus' is not just an arbitrary sign. The word Jesus means 'Saviour'. As the angel said. And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins. (Mt 1v21). By taking the name Jesus our Lord is designated as the Saviour.
4. Manifestation as Saviour of mankind
But it the ceremony is not simpy a designation, by the act of the circumcision of Jesus, our Lord manifests Himself as our Saviour too. For to be our Saviour, He had to have human nature. He had to be able to shed blood for us. He had to be able to suffer to atone. His circumcision demonstrates this reality. To be our Saviour He had to be able to take our sin upon His shoulders. Circumcision is the mark of the sinner whose original sin is forgiven. It is the character of the sinner. And to be our Saviour, Jesus had to be of the seed of Abraham. The circumcision was a sign of his material lineage.
5. Prefiguration of the Passion
And finally, the circumcision was a prefiguration of the Passion whereby Christ offered Himself to God. As the circumcision was a blood offering symbolising the offering of life to God, it prefigured the offering of Christ’s entire human life to God.
And so my dear brethren, we see the Church’s wisdom in proposing this feast to us as one of the Holy Days of Obligation of the Church:
It demonstrates the continuity of the Old Testament and the New.
It gives us the name of Divine Child,
It designates Him and demonstrates that He is the Saviour
It prefigures that salvific action which was His passion.
Why the rite is no longer necessary
The rite is no longer necessary or fitting because it has served its ultimate purpose which was to present to us the seed of Abraham as promised when God first spoke to Abraham. To Abraham were the promises made and to his seed. He saith not: And to his seeds as of many. But as of one: And to thy seed, which is Christ. (Gal 3:16).
The exterior circumcision of the flesh is now replaced by the sacrament of Baptism: a cleansing and marking of our soul.
6. Circumcision of the heart
Finally, we celebrate this feast to remind ourselves that we are called to an interior circumcision of the heart, which is the offering our hearts to God. Baptism cleansed us once from original sin and marked us as co-heirs with Christ; our daily Christian life - that circumcision of the heart - is an act which continues day after day.
In celebrating this feast, let us beg the graces for the year ahead – from the hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary – that we may be truly circumcised of heart as His heir, as His brother or sister and as children of Mary.