Monday

02 January 2012

"After eight days has passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb." (v. 21)

Background

Traditionally in many Church calendars, the feast of the naming and circumcision of Jesus is celebrated on 1 January (or the day after if 1 January is a Sunday), and this is based on a single verse (Luke 2:21). Today's passage takes us from the heights of the nativity story, with shepherds and angels praising God, down to more intimate and ordinary rituals as family life begins. A Jewish boy is given a name at his Brit Milah ceremony ('covenant of circumcision'), usually on the eighth day after birth, performed in the home or a synagogue. This is a traditional sign of belonging that goes back to God's covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17). It is still practised by many Jewish families today, although some choose not to circumcise.

Jesus' circumcision is not given much attention by the New Testament writers, probably because it was such a common rite of passage in their experience but possibly also because circumcision had become a controversial issue in the early days of the growing Church consisting of Jews and non-Jews. The name of Jesus, meanwhile, is a deeply meaningful and powerful subject: a name given by an angel (Matthew 1:21Luke 1:31), a name that means 'God saves', a name already associated with Joshua who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, and a name that would come into its own after the resurrection as the Church invoked it as the power of God over the forces of evil: a light against darkness.

The circumcision of Jesus marked him as a child of God within the covenant family of Abraham. The name of Jesus is itself a mark of all those who would call themselves Christian: baptized in the name of Father, Son and Spirit, praying in the name of Jesus, and trying to live in the name of Jesus. It is this sort of 'circumcision' that Paul urged his confused readers to strive for: a sense of belonging to Christ based not on outward appearances or rituals but rather a "spiritual circumcision" (Colossians 2:11). Paul says that "real circumcision is a matter of the heart" (Romans 2:29). John Wesley, in his sermon The circumcision of the heart preached on 1 January 1733, said "circumcision of the heart implies humility, faith, hope, and charity": the true worship of the heart that is "continually offered up to God through Christ, in flames of holy love". When the name of Jesus cuts into Christian hearts it should cause us to join Mary and the shepherds in glorifying and praising God with all we've got.

To Ponder

Infant christenings, dedications and naming ceremonies all have their roots in this ancient Jewish practice. How important is it that we mark the birth of children in ceremonies before God?

Read Deuteronomy 30:1-6. This is an assurance of God's faithfulness for all the times to come, and a promise of what God will do. How does this passage speak to you?

Bible notes author: The Revd Andrew Murphy

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