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The Forgotten Festival

The Circumcision of Christ by Hendrik Goltz: Creative Commons

Let’s start with a quick quiz question. What is the first Christian festival in the calendar year?

But before we get to the answer, let’s note that we begin a New Year.

We celebrated Christmas and opened all of the presents. We stuffed ourselves with too much food (the diet starts next week) and enjoyed the festive gatherings.

We counted down the minutes and seconds to midnight. The clock struck midnight, and the fireworks went off—2022 is over, and now it is 2023.

There is so much to look forward to—and I am sure there is hope that it will be a better year for those who have had a hard time in the last year.

Some of you may have made resolutions about the amount you eat and drink, a new diet regime, or even starting a fitness regime!

It is a special day in the eyes of the world, but this day is special for another reason. And here is where we come to the answer to the quiz question I posed at the top of the post…

Today we mark a festival day, namely the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Christ.

This—rather than the beginning of a New Year—gives today its fundamental significance for Christians.

Today has always been an important day in the church year. Spiritually speaking, it is much more important than the celebration of the New Year.

For today is the day Jesus first shed his blood for us by being circumcised—and he received the name by which we still know him today, Jesus.

Have you noticed how the feast days immediately after Christmas all have the theme of sacrifice?

  • Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was remembered on December 26th.

  • Holy Innocents Day when innocent children felt the wrath of mad King Herod.

The Circumcision of Jesus and the first shedding of blood for the newborn Saviour. It reminds us that the gift of love from God will often require a sacrifice

And, of course, Jesus was to pay the ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

But what a strange thing to celebrate—a circumcision. It is something we usually don’t even talk about in polite company, and here we are celebrating a festival about it in church!

There are several reasons why we do, but to understand it, we must look into the background of circumcision: where it came from, why it was done, and what the whole thing meant.

Circumcision has its roots in the Old Testament, where God commanded that all Israelite males be circumcised when He established the covenant with Abraham. This is recorded in Genesis 17:

And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between you and Me and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between you and Me. He who is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations…’. [vv. 9-12].

God viewed circumcision as an essential act – and for THREE main reasons.

Firstly, circumcision was to be a sign.

It was to set God’s people apart from everyone else.

And it certainly accomplished this. Israelites were laughed at, mocked, and even shunned by some because of circumcision.

It was, after all, such a strange and unnatural thing to do. But it set the people of God apart. It was a physical reminder to them and others of who and what they were.

Secondly, circumcision was about obedience.

In the time of Jesus, the requirement of every Jew was to follow God’s laws. And for every Jewish male, this is achieved firstly through circumcision.

Jesus would be obedient to his father in heaven and fulfil all that was required of him.

Thirdly, circumcision was about blood.

The blood which was shed at circumcision reminded the Israelites that a Messiah was coming who would shed his blood for them.

Unlike the ritual of circumcision, this Messiah really would take their sins away and make them pure.

As you can see, this ritual for Jewish boys had many overtones of the future for Jesus; with hindsight, we can see how he was prepared and marked out for the life ahead of him, even at eight days old.

And that also includes the significance of his name.

For most of us, choosing names for our children is important. Parents also need to be careful not to offend by using—or, in some cases, not using—traditional family names.

Mary had none of these problems; the name was a given. The angel Gabriel had told her in Luke’s Gospel, ‘and you will name him Jesus.

The name Jesus was a common name for boys at that time and meant God brings salvation, so we can see that Jesus’ destiny was bound up in his name.

Names give us a sense of who the person is, and this is so with Jesus.

Circumcision reminded the Jews of God’s covenant with them and foreshadowed a new covenant which Jesus bought with his blood.

God is salvation – through Jesus, who has come amongst us in the Christmas story.

On this day when traditionally we make resolutions about changes to our lifestyles which – let’s be honest - most of us give up on very quickly, we would do far better to make the one change that really matters and to make a commitment to follow Jesus.

To look afresh at our relationship with him.

That might be the best New Year’s resolution we could ever make.

Almighty God,

whose blessed Son was circumcised

in obedience to the law for our sake

and given the Name that is above every name:

give us grace faithfully to bear his Name,

to worship him in the freedom of the Spirit,

and to proclaim him as the Saviour of the world;

one God, now and forever. Amen.


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