OUR CELEBRATION OF CHRIST’S NATIVITY draws to a close today with the Feast of His Circumcision. Many primitive cultures have traditions of marking the body in some way to distinguish the recipient as a member of the tribe, a warrior, or a member of the ruling class. In the Middle East circumcision has been practiced as a sign of belonging at least since the time of Abraham. To this day it is a defining rite among both Jews and Muslims.
In the book of Genesis we read God’s requirement: “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you that you must keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me. Throughout the ages, every male among you, when he is eight days old, shall be circumcised, including house-born slaves and those acquired with money from any foreigner who is not of your blood. Yes, both the house-born slaves and those acquired with money must be circumcised. Thus my covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting pact. If a male is uncircumcised, that is, if the flesh of his foreskin has not been cut away, such a one shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant…” (Gen 17:10-14)
In accordance with this law the Lord Jesus was circumcised eight days after His birth. It was also the time that He was formally given the name Jesus. At first glance we see that in this Jesus’ family was simply doing what was customary among Jews. They were making the infant a part of God’s People, the people of the Covenant. By His incarnation the Word of God became a human being, one of us by nature. By His circumcision He became a member of a specific people, a Jew. He would observe the Sabbath, study Torah and observe the festival pilgrimages to Jerusalem (see Luke 2:41-52). He would observe the traditions of Israel because it was through Israel that the world would be saved. As we sing at vespers on this feast: “The most merciful God did not disdain circumcision in the flesh. He offered Himself instead as a symbol and example of salvation to all. He made the Law, and yet submitted Himself to its commands and to what the prophets had foretold of Him. O our God, who hold all things in Your hands, and yet were wrapped in swaddling clothes: O Lord, glory to You!”
The Church, reflecting on His circumcision, looked at it from other vantages as well. St. Cyril of Alexandria, for example, in his third homily on the Gospel of St. Luke, noted: “It seems to me that circumcision achieved three distinct ends. In the first place, it separated the descendants of Abraham by a sort of sign and seal and distinguished them from all other nations.
“Second, it prefigured in itself the grace and efficacy of divine baptism. Formerly a male who was circumcised was included among the people of God by virtue of that seal; nowadays a person who is baptized and has formed in himself Christ the seal becomes a member of God’s adopted family.
“Third, circumcision is the symbol of the faithful when they are established in grace, as they cut away and mortify the tumultuous rising of carnal pleasures and passions by the sharp surgery of faith and by ascetic labors. They do this, not by cutting the body but by purifying the heart. They do this by being circumcised in the spirit and not in the letter.”
Our Spiritual Circumcision
A circumcision is a cutting of the flesh; circumcision according to the letter, as St Cyril describes it, is also a cutting, but of the heart. It is the removal of something, often painful, so that we can be fitting members of Christ by “the sharp surgery of faith and by ascetic labors.”
The sharp knife of faith removes from our hearts its reliance on whatever we trust for our security other than the true God. In the Roman Empire Jews trusted in the Law of Moses and pagans trusted in the gods and goddesses of the state. In our day it may be our family, our job, our culture or our political and economic systems that we feel will take care of us. People continually find that any of these can fail them drastically if they put the confidence in them that is due to God alone.
The surgery of ascetic labors is the way we deal with our pride, our greed, our lust and the like: often particularly painful as it is a surgery we face daily. St. Paul described this dynamic as “…the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh” (Col 2:11). Elsewhere he catalogued these sins as “…your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). Lest we feel too confident in our “sinlessness,” he continues the list with “anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language” and lying (Col 3:8-9). Of these we continually need to be circumcised.
What Is “The Flesh”?
When speaking of “the sins of the flesh” St Paul uses a Greek word, sarx. This is not the Greek word for body – soma – which shows that the Apostle is not equating the body with sin. As the fourth-century Egyptian ascetic Poemen said, “We were taught, not to kill the body, but to kill the passions.” Sarx has been described as “the complex of sin, death and futility into which humanity has imprisoned itself…” (John S. Custer, The Apostolic Writings, p. 78). The term “flesh,” then, includes anything including mental attitudes and even religious practices which are opposed to the kingdom of God.
Circumcising the flesh, in fact, involves dealing more with our motivations, our imaginations and the whole range of our conscious and subconscious thoughts. It is a refocusing of all our attitudes as well as our actions on God and the godly way of life. Asceticism, then, are the means by which we restore the natural hierarchy of body and spirit. The body is meant to serve the spirit; not the other way around, as is the case in the fallen world. Human nature in its fallen, sinful condition finds the spirit enslaved to the flesh, and to the need to gratify the appetites of the flesh. Insofar as the spirit remains in this state of bondage, it is rendered incapable of communing with God.
Spiritual circumcision, then, is an indispensable part of our progress toward union with God. It is an aspect of what we are urged to do continually in our liturgical services: “Let us commend ourselves, one another and our whole life to Christ God.”
The most merciful God did not disdain circumcision in the flesh. He offered Himself instead as a symbol and example of salvation to all. He made the Law, and yet submitted Himself to its commands and to what the prophets had foretold of Him. O our God who hold all things in Your hands, and yet were wrapped in swaddling clothes: O Lord, glory to You! (Vespers sticheron)
O Merciful Lord who, being God, assumed our human nature without undergoing change, You fulfilled the Law by accepting to be circumcised in the flesh, so as to put an end to prefigurations and remove the veil of our passions. Glory to Your goodness, O Word! Glory to Your compassion! Glory to Your ineffable condescension! (Troparion)