A Covenant in Flesh and Spirit

Circumcision of Christ / Feast of St. Basil the Great, January 1, 2017
Colossians 2:8-12; Luke 2:20-21, 40-52
V. Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today is the eighth day from the Nativity, and on the eighth day from birth, newborn Jewish boys were circumcised. The Lord Jesus, Who fulfilled every part of the Law of Moses, was no exception to this tradition, and so, in addition to celebrating the feast of St. Basil the Great, today is the feast that commemorates the Lord’s circumcision in the flesh.

It seems like an oddly uncomfortable thing to put on the Church’s calendar. And yet, here it is. And even the epistle and the Gospel readings are chosen specifically for this feast and override other readings that might have been used today. So instead of just trying to pass over what may feel a little weird to make part of our church experience, let’s talk about what this actually means and why the Lord’s circumcision on the eighth day is actually a critical element in how we understand what the Gospel message actually is.

To understand circumcision, we have to return to its beginning with the Jewish people. It was with Abraham that God made the original covenant. This covenant would be between God and Abraham with all his descendants. Like all covenants, it was a contract of sorts, though of much deeper and defining character than we usually think of contracts in our day.

We read about the covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 17. The whole chapter is about this covenant. It begins with God laying out what He was going to do for Abraham. First, He changes his name—until this point, he was called Abram. But now God calls him Abraham, and He says to the newly-named Abraham that he would be fruitful, the father of many nations. He says that He would be their God, that He will give to them a promised land (Gen. 17:1-8).

And then God lays out some expectations on Abraham. The first thing He requires is circumcision. Every male child would be circumcised, and for the newly born, it would be on the eighth day from birth. This would apply both to Abraham’s descendants but also to anyone taken into their homes as servants or slaves (Gen. 17:9-13). The Lord then says that any uncircumcised male child would be cut off from the people of God, because he had broken the covenant (Gen. 17:14).

But this isn’t just about the boys. Even though circumcision is not for female children, God turns to Abraham’s wife and changes her name from Sarai to Sarah. Women are part of the covenant, too. And He declares that Sarah, who was very old by this time, would become a new mother, the mother indeed to the many nations that Abraham would be father of (Gen. 17:15-16). And Abraham laughs at the idea! Why? Because they are both old. Abraham himself was going to be 100, and Sarah would be 90. New parents? Abraham suggests that maybe God should pay attention to Ishmael, a son that Abraham had fathered not by his wife but by a handmaiden (Gen. 17:17-18).

But God says that the covenant He was establishing would be transmitted through Isaac, who would indeed be miraculously born to the aged Sarah about a year later. And the covenant would be given to Isaac’s descendants (Gen. 17:19, 21). At that, Abraham is himself circumcised and has all the men and boys of his house circumcised, so as to fulfill the covenant that the Lord had made (Gen. 17:23-27).

So circumcision is the sign by which God’s pact with His people is made through Abraham. It is a public mark in the sense that it is not something that can be undone and would doubtless be noticeable to anyone who happened to see any man of Abraham’s people naked. But it is also a private and very personal commitment. The covenant is likewise both public and private.

So how does this pertain to those who are not Jews but are Christians? Are Christian boys supposed to be circumcised because they are grafted in as children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7)? No, that is not the conclusion that we should come to. After all, Paul says elsewhere that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision really count for anything, but rather what really counts is a new creation (Gal. 6:15) and keeping the commandments of God (1 Cor. 7:19). So Christians are not required to circumcise their male children.

And Paul also says in Romans 2 that the real circumcision that counts is in the heart, not in the flesh—that is, its meaning is spiritual (Rom. 2:28-29). Furthermore, he says that the real circumcision is found among those who worship God in the spirit and rejoice in Jesus Christ, not those who place their confidence in a fleshly sign (Phil. 3:3)!

So what are we to make of all this? Does all this mean that Jesus’ circumcision didn’t really matter? No, that’s not what Paul is saying at all. After all, circumcision for the Jews came from God. We have to get back to the meaning behind the circumcision that God appointed for Abraham. Its purpose was to establish a covenant.

And now, the Old Covenant was passing away. Or rather, that Old Covenant was being transformed into the New Covenant. God established it as everlasting with Abraham, but it was everlasting not because the Jews as a distinct people would exist even to eternity—such designations become of no effect in age to come (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11). Rather, that covenant was everlasting because it was going to be fulfilled in Christ, the Everlasting One Himself. And if Jesus was going to fulfill the covenant with Abraham, He Himself would follow it. So He is circumcised on the eighth day.

But listen to what Paul says in today’s epistle reading from Colossians about this: “For in Him [that is, in Jesus] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and you are completed in Him, Who is the Head of every principality and authority, in whom you were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, but by the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried together with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith of the operation of God, Who raised Him from the dead.”

So because in Jesus dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and because the body of Jesus underwent circumcision, and because we are baptized into Christ, we have all the virtue of His fulfillment of that commandment given to Abraham. We have the virtue of circumcision by being baptized into Christ. And what is more, we are now given what Paul calls “a circumcision not made with hands, but by the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh.” That is we are being brought into a new covenant, the New Covenant which comes through baptism.

In addition to circumcision, the one event that identified the community of the Old Covenant more than any other was the Exodus, when the Prophet Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt by crossing over the Red Sea as on dry land. The Exodus was a renewal and confirmation of the covenant God had made with Abraham (Ex. 2:24, 6:4-5). Paul also uses this image in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, where he says that their passage through the Red Sea was a kind of baptism.

Again and again, baptism is connected with covenant by Paul, both as a fulfillment of the Exodus and also as the fulfillment of circumcision under the Law. So if the Old Israel understood themselves to be covenantally defined by circumcision and the Exodus, the New Israel—the Church—is covenantally defined by baptism. Paul says in Hebrews 8 that this new covenant, established through our high priest Christ, is a better covenant which fulfills and supersedes the Old, which had been broken by the Old Israel and was vanishing away (Heb. 8:6-13).

So how do we properly celebrate the feast of the circumcision of Christ? We celebrate by fully embracing our covenant with God, which is begun in us with baptism. And we continue in that covenant by keeping the commandments that God has given, by showing that we truly are that “new creation.”

Fundamentally, this feast is about our identity as participants in the New Covenant. We belong to Jesus Christ, because He has established the covenant with us and kept His side of it: He fulfilled the old Law which everyone else had broken, and He brought to us salvation, which is something much greater than the old Law could ever give. And this covenant very explicitly includes women in every way—while women were included, only boys could be circumcised under the Old Covenant, but both men and women are baptized into the New.

For many Christians, Christian identity is not the first thing in their lives. It is second or third or maybe somewhere much further down the line. But we have been covenantally defined in our baptism. We have been brought into the Kingdom of God. We cannot be casually Christian. We have to be recognizably so. Just as Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah, we are also given a name when brought into the covenant at baptism, and it is a name we have to live up to.

The Lord Jesus, Who humbled Himself and defined Himself as one of us, beckons to us to humble ourselves also and thus to define ourselves as belonging with Him.

And just as the old circumcision, if violated, cut someone off from the Old Covenant, so will anyone be cut off from the New Covenant if he breaks it. Those who break the New Covenant are not God’s people.

This is the question: To whom do you belong? You will belong to someone. Will it be to the Lord of the New Covenant?

To the Christ Who was born for us and circumcised for us and established the New Covenant with us be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.