Circumcision, St Basil, and Sunday Before Theophany
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are in a season of feasts and commemorations of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We recently celebrated the great feast of the Nativity of our Lord – when He Who created the heavens and the earth was born in humility as a lowly and vulnerable child in a cave in Bethlehem.
Today we commemorate the Circumcision of the Lord and we observe the Sunday before the great feast of Theophany, the baptism of our Lord.
Let us begin our reflections this morning on the significance of the circumcision of our Lord. As we read in the Gospel reading appointed for this feast, on the eighth day, in accordance with Jewish law, the Child was brought to the temple to be circumcised and given His name.
This tradition of naming the child on the eighth day is still observed in the Orthodox Church, however the practice of circumcision as a mark of the covenant with God has been replaced by the mark of the fullness of the New Covenant of Christ, holy baptism.
Why does the Holy Church observe then this rite of the circumcision of the Lord? There are two important reasons why we do so…
First, it demonstrates for us the fullness of the submission of Christ to the Hebraic laws. As He stated to His followers, He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Joseph and Mary were pious people who observed the traditions of their fathers. They thus brought the Christ Child to the temple on the eighth day for Him to be circumcised as required by the law and to formally receive His name, Jesus, just as the angel had foretold to them.
The second reason we observe this feast of the Circumcision of the Lord is perhaps even more important. In submitting to this ritual, it clearly demonstrates for all the reality of the incarnation of the Lord. Jesus Christ had put on human flesh and submitted that flesh to that which was required of it. The feast underscores for us the fact that Jesus was fully man, just as He was fully God. This understanding of the two natures of Christ is a foundational teaching of the Orthodox Church.
As we noted on the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, this teaching of the fullness of Christ’s humanity and the fullness of Christ’s divinity underscores and facilitates the great work of salvation which was accomplished by our Lord. In Christ’s humanity, He suffered and was tempted and experienced the joys and sorrows of mankind, even unto death. And in Christ’s divinity, He sanctified all such joy and sorrow, all such suffering, even triumphing over death by His glorious resurrection. As St Isaac the Syrian puts it: ‘God took upon Himself the seal of our humanity in order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of Divinity.’
And so, on this day, let us reflect upon that interior circumcision of the heart which was made possible to us in our baptism into Christ the Lord. If the exterior, fleshly circumcision was a sign of the Old Covenant, then surely, the cleansing waters of baptism and the interior circumcision of our heart are the sign of the New Covenant. This circumcision of the heart is the cutting off of our selfish passions… that we may make room for the grace of God.
Just as Christ submitted Himself to the circumcision of the flesh, He also submitted Himself to baptism by John in the Jordan. St John at first refused to baptize our Lord, saying: ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered: ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ John then immersed our Lord in the waters and, as we sing on the feast of Theophany: ‘the worship of the Trinity was made manifest’! The word Theophany means the appearance of God. On this day, Jesus Christ was baptized, and the voice of the Father spoke out calling Him His beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove to rest upon Him. It is a startling and powerful revelation of the true nature of God as Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We will celebrate the great feast of Theophany this week with Vigil on Thursday evening and Liturgy and the blessing of the waters on Friday morning.
What a great Mystery is our God! Unknowable and beyond our comprehension… and yet, in His generous love and humility, He deigns to dwell among us and sanctifies water and flesh and blood. St Basil the Great, whom we remember today, eloquently said: ‘Now if you want to say or hear something about God, break free from your body, break free from your sense perceptions, leave behind the earth, leave behind the sea, rise above the air, fly past the hours of day, the cycles of the seasons, the rhythms of the earth, climb above the ether, pass beyond the stars, their marvels, their harmonious order, their immense size, the benefits they supply to all, their good arrangement, their splendor, their position, their motion, their constellations and oppositions. Once you have passed beyond all things in your thoughts, transcended the heaven, and risen above it, behold the beauty there with your mind alone: the heavenly armies, the choirs of angels, the dignities or archangels, the glories of the dominions, the preeminence of the thrones, the powers, the principalities, the authorities. Once you have flown past all these things, transcended the entire created order in your thoughts, and raised your intellect far beyond these, contemplate the divine nature: permanent, immutable, inalterable, impassible, simple, incomposite, indivisible, unapproachable light, ineffable power, uncircumscribed greatness, supereminent glory, desirable goodness, extraordinary beauty that ravishes the soul pierced by it but that cannot be worthily expressed in speech.’
What a vision! What a reality!
May our God Who is beyond utterance and yet Who manifests Himself so intimately with us by His Word and His Spirit, fill us with the joy and peace and love of His presence.