Monday, January 02, 2012

Sermon for the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord

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. --Luke 2:21

Today is traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision. Under Jewish law, baby boys are circumcised on the eighth day, so if Christmas is celebrated as the birth of Jesus as a Jewish boy, then today is the celebration of his circumcision.

The liturgical changes in the 1960’s and 1970’s led to this feast being known under different names. The church in Rome in the early centuries celebrated the octave day of Christmas as a feast in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, recognizing her role in the Incarnation, and traces of this persisted in the liturgical texts for the Feast of the Circumcision down through the centuries. So the Roman Catholic calendar renamed the feast the “Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God”. Episcopalians and Lutherans renamed the feast the “Feast of the Holy Name”, recognizing that it was on this occasion that the name Jesus was given to the newborn infant. However, the gospel read on this day continues to be the account of the circumcision, and I believe we have much to learn from considering its significance.

In Genesis, we read that God commanded Abraham to be circumcised, with all the males of his household, and to circumcise the boys on the eighth day from that point forward. It quotes God as saying “[M]y covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:13). The Hebrew word “bris”, or “b’rit”, as it is pronounced in Israel, which is the common Jewish term referring to circumcision, literally means “covenant”. The circumcision is a very visible reminder in the flesh of a Jewish man of the covenant God made with the Jewish people, promising certain things to them in return for obeying God’s commandments.

This sign of the covenant is so serious and important that, despite the fact that it would normally fall under the category of prohibited activities on the Sabbath, it is not only permitted but required to be done if the eighth day is a Sabbath. The account in Genesis states that anyone not circumcised is “cut off” from his people for violating the covenant.

What is a covenant? A covenant is a solemn agreement between two parties, with each promising to do something for the other. God promises, in the covenant of circumcision, to be the guardian and keeper of the Jewish people, while the people promise to follow God’s commandments and to be a holy people.

It was necessary for Jesus to enter into this covenant as the one inaugurating the New Covenant, which would bring Gentiles into covenant with God as well. We as Christians believe that through baptism, we are brought into covenant with God. God promises to give us eternal life, in return for our promise to renounce sin and all the forces of evil, and to accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, living a new life in, through, and for him.

We often hear that the gift of new life in Christ is a “free gift” – and in one sense, it is true. We are given this new life without our having done anything to deserve it. It is a free gift of grace.

But in another sense, it is not free – in return for this “free gift”, we agree to be completely transformed in Christ, and to give our whole lives over to him.

The covenant in the Old Testament involved many sacrifices. Clearly, circumcision involves a sacrifice of flesh and blood. Many other parts of the covenant were sealed with animal sacrifice. On Candlemas, which we celebrate on February 2, we celebrate the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, with a sacrifice of two turtledoves, in accordance with the commandment in the Torah.

And much of our faith as Christians revolves around the doctrine that Christ sacrificed his life for us on the cross, and there is a long tradition of thinking about the precious blood of Jesus, and its cleansing power in our lives. There are many hymns written about it, such as “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “There is Power in the Blood”, but even many more traditional hymns, such as “The Church’s One Foundation”, make reference to it, saying of the church that “with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died”. There is even a devotion to the seven sheddings of blood of our Lord, of which the Circumcision is the first.

In our day, many are uncomfortable talking about the place of blood and sacrifice in our faith, and it is certainly outside the scope of this sermon to examine all of the theories of the Atonement. However, it is significant to note that just as circumcision involves the shedding of blood in bringing someone new into God’s covenant with the Jewish people, so baptism is the symbolic death and resurrection of the new Christian into Christ’s death and resurrection.

This is a very important beginning in our new life with Christ. The deepest relationships we have are with those with whom we have gone through suffering of some kind. Put another way, if you haven’t shed blood, sweat, and tears in your spiritual journey, you haven’t gotten anywhere. Being a Christian involves putting our whole being – our blood, our sweat, our tears – as well as our joys, our laughter, our happiness – into our walk with Christ.

As we celebrate the beginning of a new secular year, in commemorating the Circumcision of our Lord, may we resolve to make this a year in which we give our all to Christ, knowing that we will receive so much more in return.