3 Reasons Our Lord’s Circumcision is More Profound Than You Realize

These are three declarations to the Church about who our Savior is.

(photo: Andrea Mantegna, “The Circumcision”, c. 1462)

The first act with the baby Jesus after his birth was an act of obedience to Jewish tradition.

“And at the end of the eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  —Luke 2:21

Our first day of the year has long been celebrated by the Church as the Feast of the Circumcision. It is an important day in the world’s calendar to celebrate what most Christians take as a minor and mere “administrative” event in the life of our Savior and the story of our salvation. The circumcision is something that every good Jewish family does with their newborn son. Jesus’ circumcision is significant to every Christian for many reasons. I want to highlight three — three declarations to the Church about who our Savior is.

Reason #1: It reminds us that our Lord is a Child of the Covenant.

A wildly popular video some years ago featured a young man — who was a talented performer but a poor theologian — employing spoken verse to explain that Jesus was not religious.

It’s a simple syllogism: Jews are quite religious. Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was quite religious.

The first act with the baby Jesus after his birth was an act of obedience to Jewish tradition. Mary and Joseph had their son circumcised. It marked him, both humanly and spiritually, as a child of the covenant. Their entire family was certainly there celebrating the special life event. In fact, we could say that this was the first ceremonial, planned celebration of his miraculous life. This is no small thing. It was the day he officially received his name — that which is above all names in obedience to what the angel declared to Mary. This is why it has been traditionally celebrated on the first day of the year.

Reason #2: It reminds us that our Lord is fully human.

Every good Christian knows that this singular child was conceived within the intimacy of Mary’s womb — fully, totally, completely man and fully, totally, completely God. He came into the world that way, lived that way, died, returned to life and ascended that way.

But often times we feel more comfortable emphasizing the spiritual, divine nature of the child over his human nature. This is bad Christology. It was among of the first blasphemies Satan threatened the orthodoxy of the Church with: Gnosticism and the Docetism. It was the Christ-subverting lie that he only appeared to be human. This fraud is refuted with atomic strength in the first three major turns in the history of our faith:

  • His real human conception as a zygote, growing as real flesh in the real womb of his mother.
  • His real human birth, physically wrapped tight and laid bodily in a manger. He cried. He nursed. He had bodily functions that required the loving attention of his parents.
  • His penis was cut. Our natural uncomfortable reaction to this fact proves the point of his dual divinity and humanity, does it not? How could we speak of God this way? Exactly. His circumcision is a line of explicit exclamation marks emphasizing the scandalous reality of the Incarnation.

Which brings us to our last, and least appreciated, point.

Reason #3: The circumcision was a foreshadowing of our Lord’s sacrifice.

Christ shed his blood for the sins of man. This, as C.S. Lewis would say, is mere Christianity. Along with the fact of our Savior’s dual nature, there is nothing else in our faith more fundamental than this. But what does it have to do with his circumcision? More than we appreciate.

In his Judaism, it signified his being a human child of the covenant. In his salvific mission, it was an icon of the completion of that covenant. Was it not the first shedding of his precious blood, the cutting, the offering of his divine flesh?  The Church has long appreciated the circumcision of Christ, not as an event, but a foreshadowing, a proclamation of the great gift that was to come on a particular Friday many years hence. They saw it as a payment in earnest required for the horrific debt of our sin. Andreas Mantegna’s “Circumcision” is a graphic homily on this count. Appreciate what this is communicating to us. The Christ child’s face. His desperate infant clutch upon Mary’s shawl. His utter vulnerability. Mary’s stricken face, which will certainly turn away at the moment her son’s sacred blood is revealed.

But the suffering infant is crowned. His divine and universal majesty.

Mantegna wants us to see the circumcision as Christ’s first passion. It’s there in his tiny face, in his bodily reaction. Just as in Gethsemane, as he looks to his Father, asking if he could possibly be spared what is to come, he has this same experience with his mother. “Mother, why is this happening to me? Help me, please.” Our Savior was not stoic, neither here nor before the cross, but human.

Mantegna wants us to fully grasp that the circumcision was an early demonstration of how the Son of Man was born not to be served, but to serve, “to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Feast of the Circumcision is the celebration of his family’s obedience to the old covenant and the first blood and body and shed in the coming of the new covenant.

We possess an unspeakably beautiful faith that brings the human and the divine together in profound ways.