The Circumcision of Christ
The Epistle. Philippians II. 9.
Brethren: God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you bothe to will and to do of his good pleasure.
As I told you at this time last year, the practice of circumcision was an ancient one, even at the time of Christ. The seventeenth chapter of Genesis tells us that it was originally ordained by God and intended as a sign of the covenant between Himself and Abraham. It had also come to signify whether one was “clean” or not. If you were “uncircumcised”, it meant that you were profane, imperfect, unclean. When the young David expressed his outrage at the challenge of Goliath, he reinforced this idea by referring to his enemy as “this uncircumcised Philistine” (I Samuel 17:26)
For us the importance of this is somewhat obvious; if we have been circumcised, our imperfections have been cut away and we have been made clean. But this “cutting away” is only one part of what “circumcision” means. To truly understand the significance of “circumcision”, we must examine a few of the other elements of this ancient ceremony.
The first element, as I’ve already implied, is that circumcision is a sign of God’s Covenant. By humbly and willingly submitting ourselves to God’s cleansing, we are marked as a people committed to His Will. God has promised His Grace and His Love to us, and we reciprocate with a simple act of obedience that reflects our Faith. By acquiescing to the act of “circumcision”, we commit ourselves to keeping our part, our responsibility, in the Covenant with God.
The second element that I submit for consideration is contained in this verse from today’s Epistle; “God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name“. By Jewish tradition, a Circumcision ceremony includes the naming of the child. We may find a corollary in our own Baptismal rites, when on occasion our children are given “baptismal names” that are additional to those noted on their government issued birth certificates.
And according to that same Jewish tradition, the responsibility for selecting the name of the child fell to the natural father. But we see examples in the Old Testament where it was God Himself who conferred new names upon His children. In the seventeenth chapter of the Book of Genesis, God announces His Covenant with His chosen people; and He designates the human recipient of this Covenant by giving him a new name; “Abram” is now “Abraham” (Genesis 17:5).
Later, in the 32nd chapter of Genesis, God reinforces and renews His Covenant with Abraham’s son, Jacob. You may recall that this chapter recounts the story of Jacob wrestling with God for an entire night; and at the end of this struggle, Jacob received not just the Blessing of God, but also a new name; “and he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).
We see a further example of God’s intervention in the naming of the forerunner of His Christ; “But the angel said unto Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John” (Luke 1:13). And like those Old Testament Patriarchs, Zacharias submits to God’s authority and right to name his child; “and he asked for a writing table, and wrote saying, His name is John” (Luke 1:63).
All of these examples marked a new stage in the life of the one who received their names from God. And it is in this context that we must consider the words of the Apostle; “God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name“.
Here is where it can become a bit confusing if we try to make an “apples to apples” comparison. We can easily see that the lives of “Abram” and “Jacob” were marked as being forever changed when they were given their new names, “Abraham” and “Israel”, by God. Likewise, we might be able to discern the beginning of a new stage in the life of the son of Zacharias in light of proclamation of his father; which we have come to know as the “Benedictus” (Luke 1:68-79); but what about the naming of Jesus?
The naming of the son of Mary initially shared a similar format with that of the Baptist; there was an “announcement” by an angel who gave some details about the life of the child about to be conceived. And there was a command from that same angel that the child would be known by a specific name. And as we know from today’s Gospel lesson, the earthly parents of Jesus acquiesced to this command when their child was circumcised. So it might be understandable that we should take for granted the words of the Apostle; “God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name“.
On the surface, this is not a bad thing. But here we must remember that the bestowal of a name marks a new stage in the life of that person; and that that person is forever changed from that point on. This can hardly be said of Jesus, since from the beginning of time he was and is the Son of God; it is not possible that his life, his destiny was changed at his circumcision. So in this context, to what could the Apostle be referring?
I submit to you that St. Paul is still marking a life change; but it is not Jesus life that is changing; rather, it is ours. To this point humanity had known God as all-powerful, and on occasion, vengeful. But by submitting to this human ceremony, God Incarnate symbolically seals the link with His Creation by accepting the mark of the Old Covenant. Not only does this act tell us of the transition to a New Covenant with God, but it marks a new stage in our lives as well; no longer will our God be known as a vengeful, unrevealed God; He will instead be known as an all-loving God, and that this Love will be shown through the humility of His Son.
Indeed the entire life of Jesus is an example of this humility; from his birth in the stable in Bethlehem, through his early life when he submitted to the authority of his earthly parents, throughout his ministry on earth, and culminating in his Passion and Death on the Cross. At every step, the Son of God puts the Love of God on display for all to see. At every step, the Son of God shows us the lengths to which God will go to reunite Himself with His Creation. At every step, the Son of God demonstrates that the path to God begins with our willingness to be likewise humble.
This is that new stage of life that we embark upon first at our Baptism, then again at our Confirmation. The beginning of this new stage of our life is made known to us by the naming of the one who we know to be the Incarnation of God; “God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name“; and it requires that we follow the example of his humility.
This is how we begin to exemplify that humility ourselves; “that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth“. And when we do this, when we bow at the name of the Son of God, then we can better comprehend and proclaim the new name given to him; which will prove that we have taken to heart the example of his humility.
This is how we truly mark that new stage in our lives; “that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father“. This is how we may know that we have learned the meaning of the Circumcision of Christ.